But in 1994, Post contributor Tonya Pendleton knew Aaliyah was on to something. She raved about the young singer in a review of her debut album “Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number.”
“Aaliyah’s voice has the maturity of someone much older,” Pendleton wrote. “Her voice may be soft, but her diction is clear, and each word resonates with feeling.”
Read that review, Teresa Wiltz’s review of the 2001 album “Aaliyah, ”and Wiltz’s appreciation for the singer following her tragic death — all after the jump.
Aaliyah: “Age Ain’t Nothin' but a Number”
By Tonya Pendleton, Special to The Washington Post
September 6, 1994
Detroit native Aaliyah is the teenage protege of R&B’s reigning loverman, R. Kelly, and “Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number” is the first release from Kelly's own label, Blackground Entertainment. Both perform Saturday at USAir Arena as part of Budweiser Superfest.
Kelly’s rough-hewn voice suggests the sexual sensibilities of Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass, and he has carved a niche for himself at the top of the charts. He has also begun to establish himself as a production force with Hi Five, the Winans, Billy Ocean, female duo Changing Faces (which recently scored with a gold single “Stroke You Up”) and Janet Jackson (Kelly’s remix of her “Any Time, Any Place” went gold). It was Aaliyah’s first single, “Back and Forth,” that interrupted the record-breaking 13-week run of Kelly’s own “Bump and Grind” at the top of Billboard’s R&B chart.
As with most of the teenage girls who have recently populated the music industry, Aaliyah’s voice has the maturity of someone much older. What makes her stand out is her uniquely mellifluous tone and the eloquent way she expresses the heartfelt passion of first love. Unlike her adolescent counterparts, she doesn’t try to assume emotions she’s never felt or take on material outside her range of experience. “Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number” is that rarest of recordings — a collection well suited for its teenage target group, but one that even older listeners can relate to.
Aaliyah’s silken voice caresses the beat, which swings rhythmically through “Back and Forth,” one of this summer's street anthems. Kelly’s hip-hop inserts provide a funky contrast that carries over to “Throw Your Hands Up” and “Down With the Clique,” all paeans to the fun-loving good times of adolescence.
But it’s on the ballads that Aaliyah really shines. While “I'm So Into You” and “Young Nation” are undermined by unimaginative and silly lyrics, the album's other three ballads are gorgeous. “Street Thing” is a sultry slow jam that Alicia Myers might have sung had she started her career as a teenager.
“Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number” opens with Aaliyah's spoken voice noting her daily diary entry. The song that follows owes a line and its spirit to Bobby Caldwell's classic single “What You Won't Do for Love.” It’s a seductive entreaty to an older lover to forget their age difference and allow their relationship to ripen, coupled with a delicate guitar-piano interplay that echoes the urgency of her performance.
The intensity level is no less on “At Your Best (You Are Love),” Kelly's masterly remake of the Isley Brothers' 1976 hit. It showcases the youthful promise and fervor of Aaliyah's voice so expertly that it's hard to believe the song wasn’t written especially for her. Her voice may be soft, but her diction is clear, and each word resonates with feeling. That song bodes well for Aaliyah’s future and the themes she has yet to tackle.
Aaliyah’s Peek Performance
By Teresa Wiltz, Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 2001
From the start — even when, to quote from her first CD, she was just a teenager with “a ’90s swing” — Aaliyah knew how to mine mystery. Maybe it was her are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship with her much-older mentor, R. Kelly. Or maybe it was that no one knew what her eyes looked like. She played the tease, hiding behind those Foster Grants or ducking under an extravagant curtain of Veronica Lake hair.
Now the shades have been tossed, hair brushed off her face. As it turns out, she's got eyes. Nice ones. But she’s not over the whole mystery thing. Because this time around, with her third CD, “ Aaliyah,” the Detroit singer is hiding behind the men hiding behind the studio curtain.
That is to say, her producers, who take center stage in an effort that proves the wonders of recording-studio magic. Only three of the album’s 15 songs credit actual musicians.
Aaliyah is a contemporary of those other barely-post-adolescent R&B crooners, from Mya to Monica to Brandy et al. But with her edge and attitude -- not to mention dance skills — the 21-year-old actually has more in common with Janet Jackson.
Like Jackson, Aaliyah has a sweetly pleasant voice that wears thin when stretched beyond its limits. And like Jackson, Aaliyah learned early on that marrying yourself (in her case, this meant literally) to a powerhouse producer with a knack for cranking out phat beats guaranteed a trip to the top of the charts.
But Jackson, despite her vocal limitations, knows how to craft a heavyweight presence on top of her lighter-than-air vocals. Perhaps it's the fact that Jackson writes her own intensely personal lyrics, while Aaliyah does not, and so, while Aaliyah has visual spunk, her sound is all rather ephemeral. When she sings, in "Never No More," "Promised myself you won't put your hand on me again / Never no more . . . / I just know you better not touch me again," it's hard to believe she means what she sings. Where's the passion? The rage? The sorrow? She might as well be singing a grocery list.
Still, there is some enjoyable ear candy in this album that treads through traditional lyrical terrain: love gone bad and men gone worse.
It's fun playing guess-the-sample with Timbaland’s clever production, wacky backbeats and space-age mixes. Was that a classical snippet? Or a riff from “The Addams Family?” On the CD’s first single,
We Need a Resolution,” Timbaland combines idiosyncratic beats, moody, off-key melodies and an insistent, dirgelike chorus for a strangely hypnotic effect. Too bad that, in this ambitious mix, Aaliyah's voice amounts to little more than another toy for the mad scientist to play with.
"I Care for You," penned by Missy Elliott, is a torchy near-miss, while "Extra Smooth" is a playful booty shaker. "Loose Rap" has a catchy little riff with a vaguely Latin feel, a mid-tempo groove that will get heads to nodding.
None of this is new territory for the singer-actress, who co-starred with Jet Li in "Romeo Must Die" and stars in the forthcoming adaptation of Anne Rice's "The Queen of the Damned." Her first CD, released when she was just 15, displayed her voice to lovely effect in the cover of the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)" and the jeep jam "Back and Forth." And the CD’s title, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” an obvious reference to her youth, took on added meaning later when it was discovered that the teenager had married R. Kelly.
For her second CD, the multi-platinum "One in a Million," Aaliyah teamed up with hip-hop producers Elliott and Timbaland, fleshing out her sound. With hits like "If Your Girl Only Knew," the sweetness was offset by a thick layer of funk, a richer, slicker sound backed by the irresistible backbone-slipping beats of Timbaland.
That's a formula she seems comfortable with. And if you're only concerned about making prefab hits, it works -- as long as her vocals aren’t drowned out in the midst of studio hubris.
So if her musical identity remains a mystery, that doesn’t seem to matter much these days. Fans can always fill in the blanks with those hyper-glossy, now-you-see-her, now-you-don’t MTV images.
By Teresa Wiltz, Washington Post Staff Writer
August 28, 2001
It's a sad fact that death and hip-hop have been frequent companions: Tupac and Biggie gunned down, victims of well-publicized, or just well-manufactured, feuds. Freaky Tah of the Lost Boyz shot in the back of the head, the victim of an apparent beef. Big L taken out in a revenge killing. Fans grieve, but as they mourn, they speak of needless violence, of living by the sword and dying by it, too. In some circles, death is something to be expected, bragged about, never feared.
But on Monday, fans of R&B baby diva Aaliyah couldn’t make any sense of the sudden death of the singer they are now calling "hip-hop's Princess Di," a young woman known for keeping it clean, who described herself as being "street but sweet." She didn’t traffic in Glocks, didn't indulge in big pimpin’, didn't court the bling-bling life.
“Why does it feel different this time around?” wondered one fan on the okayplayer.com Web site. “To me, this is so much worse [than Tupac and Biggie]. . . . This is just hurting me so much more. Is it because she is just such a beautiful talented woman? Is it cause her message was so positive?”
Two days after multi-platinum-selling singer Aaliyah Haughton, 22, was killed along with eight others in the crash of a twin-engine plane in the Bahamas, distraught fans crashed the servers on Aaliyah Web sites and flooded radio stations with remembrances.
Yesterday, WKYS-FM's Russ Parr and Olivia Fox devoted their entire morning show to the late singer.
"The phone lines went absolutely nuts," Parr said. "Everyone could see that she was getting ready to be a major star."
Last year she earned praise for her film debut in "Romeo Must Die," in which she starred with Jet Li. She had also starred in the yet-to-be released adaptation of Anne Rice's "Queen of the Damned," and was scheduled to appear in two sequels to "The Matrix."
Aaliyah first came to attention in 1994, when she was just 15, with her CD "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number," which went platinum, selling more than a million copies. The title later raised eyebrows when documents indicated that the teenager, in her one publicized act of rebellion, had married her mentor, singer-producer R. Kelly. (The marriage was apparently annulled, and neither Aaliyah nor Kelly ever publicly spoke of it.)
Her second CD, on which she joined up with hip-hop producers Missy Elliott and Timbaland, "One in a Million," went multi-platinum.
"She represents the first class of R&B artists that are making the transition into film and other forms of entertainment," said Vibe Executive Editor OJ Lima. "A lot of people thought that Aaliyah had the most promise."
The death of such promise, coupled with the singer's sweetness, left family, friends and fans shaken.
"Even the toughest and most fierce among us have been silenced by this," said WPGC disc jockey Michel Wright. "It seemed so unfair. Aaliyah wasn't embroiled in any negativity, the beefs you hear about in the hip-hop community."
"She was like a hip-hop Princess Di," says Jamie Foster Brown, editor and publisher of Sister 2 Sister magazine. "She always carried herself like royalty, she didn't hang out and drink, or go wild. She never had a diva attitude."
"IF there is a god somewhere he loves her," one fan wrote in message posted on the Internet. "She died to early. she was beautiful like marilyn and young like james dean I'm really sad."