Aplane crash in the Bahamas last Saturday night ended the life of 22-year-old singer and actress Aaliyah Haughton, one of the most innovative artists in today's hip-hop landscape. For the performer who initially proved that "age ain't nothin' but a number," it was an end that came just on the brink of Yberstardom.
Even at the young age of 22, Aaliyah was a seasoned veteran of the entertainment world, her flute-like voice and cool, confident stature conquering both musical and cinematic arenas. Her first album, Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number (1994), produced by then-husband R. Kelly, introduced the 15-year-old as a sultry yet strong and sophisticated hip-hop chanteuse. Her next, One in a Million (1996), went double platinum and established Aaliyah as a dynamic R&B presence: sexy without being slutty, untouchable yet down to earth. A string of movie soundtrack singles, produced by hip-hop experimental maestro Timbaland, kept Aaliyah in the spotlight, winning her Grammy nominations and MTV video awards. Last year, she garnered raves for her turn in Romeo Must Die with co-star Jet Li.
And Aaliyah was only getting started. Her eponymously titled CD, her first in nearly five years, was released just a month ago. Critics have lauded the disc as not only her best work, but as a creative revitalization, an evolution in hip-hop music. Rolling Stone awarded her effort four stars, and Aaliyah (2001) debuted at number two on the Billboard sales charts.
Aaliyah's film career was just heating up as well. She recently finished filming on a big-screen adaptation of Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned, and she'd snagged the female lead in the upcoming installments in The Matrix trilogy. As Spin editor Alan Light lamented, "There's no guessing how big a star [these] sequels alone would have made her."
Indeed, Aaliyah marks a departure from the Timbaland-trademarked syncopated-beats-and-creative-samples style perfected in 1998's "Are You That Somebody?" Pushing the experimental edges of hip-hop even further with hard-rock guitar riffs and electronica accents, Aaliyah's latest effort returned her to the vanguard of her crowded field. From the playful "Extra Smooth" to the piano-driven ballad "I Refuse," Aaliyah's style mixed maturity, drama and a healthy dose of humor.
Fusing these attributes was Aaliyah's ethereal voice, evocative in its fluttering, strong in its subtlety. While Christina Aguilera has to belt a song to sell it, Aaliyah's voice allowed us to float through the music. However, she could be criticized as a singer willing to surrender her voice to her producer's tracks. Some of the instrumentation didn't match her melody or lyrics, as though cuts were laid down separately and tacked to mismatched vocals. But perhaps Aaliyah's malleability and vocal versatility were her greatest talents. As she told Entertainment Weekly, "I'm an interpreter of other people's words. You write a song, I'll bring it to life; you give me a script, I'll bring that to life."
And now, ironically, it's through her music and movies that Aaliyah will endure.