Written by Krishna Andavolu. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com.
There's something off-putting about the title track of the late R&B singer Aaliyah's 1994 debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number." She was only 15 when it was released, and her sultry, confident phrasing suggested a Lolita-esque eyebrow arch behind her limp justification, "for a noun ain't nothing but a thing." That she was secretly married to the 27-year-old producer of the record, who a decade later would face multiple charges of pedophilia with other teens, rules out an innocent reading of the song's lyrics. Ten years after her untimely death on August 25, 2001, Aaliyah's big break still feels unholy.
If her musical career was born under a dark cloud, it died above the crystal blue Caribbean waters. After filming a music video for the song "Rock the Boat" in the Bahamas, Aaliyah boarded a twin propellor Cessna that was headed back to Florida. The plane was overloaded with luggage and equipment, and shortly after takeoff, the plane plunged into the water, killing the singer and eight others. An inquest determined that the pilot was unlicensed and had traces of cocaine in his system.
The short life, but substantial career, of Aaliyah (which in Arabic means "the most exalted, the highest, the best,") was a product of the drive, ambition and talent of a star that craved to be recognized. She gave new life to the pop sensibilities of R&B for a generation of listeners and inspired singers like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
Beautiful, athletic and irrepressible, the Brooklyn-born and Detroit-raised Aaliyah was just about to crossover from music to cinema. At the time of her death she had two movies in the can (Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned) and was slated to star in the Matrix finale and the dance movie, Honey. Leather-clad and lithe, Aaliyah was on the rise. "She was set to explode," rap mogul and friend Puff Daddy told MTV shortly after her death.
Her success came after a slew of early missed chances. When she was 9, she appeared on the competition talent TV show Star Search. She lost. Reflecting upon her defeat on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn 11 years later, Aaliyah was bitter. "I was hot," she repeated, "I should have won."
The strength of her first record (it sold 3 million copies worldwide) gave her a shot at a second. Signed by Atlantic Records (she left Jive Records after her secret marriage to R. Kelly was revealed), Aaliyah was looking for producers. That's when she heard a little-known track by rapper/producers Timbaland and Missy Elliot, "Sugar and Spice." The wobbly, disjointed beat of the track would predict the sound of Aaliyah's best songs.
One in a Million and the single "If Your Girl Only Knew" cemented Aaliyah's reputation as a hit maker. The album sold 3.7 million copies in the United States and was nominated for best R&B album at the Grammys. Incorporating disparate elements like cricket chirps and warbling bass lines, the music of her second record offered a new direction for urban R&B.
Her next hit seemed as autobiographically charged as her first. But it was far less provocative. "Are You That Somebody?" also produced by Timbaland, appeared on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack in 1998 and rose up the pop charts. It's her best song.
"Try Again," also produced by Timbaland, appeared on the Romeo Must Die soundtrack in 2000. Despite its reliance on a cliché, Timbaland's beat and Aaliyah's swagger bring it home.
"If at first you don't succeed/ Dust yourself off and try again/ You can dust it off and try again (try again)."
That she died at her peak is a tragedy. After her death, Timbaland was distraught, telling BET, "She was like blood, and I lost blood." Her family, who against her will had her marriage to R. Kelly annulled when they discovered the union, released 22 doves at her funeral, each symbolizing a year of her striving, troubled and accomplished life.