Major record and movie success could just be the ingredients for an ego problem. However, the Native New Yorker singer/actress remains firmly rooted in reality. Jeff Lorez meets a very focused young star.
HEADS TURN, cameras flash, people stare. Aaliyah has just entered the room. Sporting a brown suede jacket, a luminous, warm, relaxed smile and Farah Fawcett styled 70’s silky shimmering black hair with red tips. Aaliyah looks every bit the burgeoning mega star that she is, strolling into the media room at New York’s Club Exit during the launch party for Joe’s latest album. There’s a buzz about Aaliyah, a common knowledge that true celebritydom is in our midst.
You see, Aaliyah has just made that charismatic leap from being just another R&B cutie pie to something bigger, much bigger in fact. Romeo Must Die the action thriller co-starring Aaliyah and martial arts wiz, Jet Li, is a runaway box office smash Stateside and Aaliyah not only turns in a credible performance but one smouldering with swiftness, sexiness and the promise of a helluva lot more to come. Then there’s the soundtrack featuring Destiny’s Child, DMX and a clutch of new tunes from the leading lady herself, the first single of which, the infectious Timbaland-produced ‘Try Again’ shot to the US charts higher regions so fast it threatened to give itself the bends!
“I went to Warner Brothers films to read for other projects and they said that Romeo… was in the works,” explains the softly spoken singer/actress from her LA hotel room a month or so later. “When they told me that Jet was in the film I wanted it right away. I did a screen test and got the part.”
Her success in Romeo… has, inevitably, landed her a subsequent role in an upcoming vampire flick, Queen of the Damned,which, she says regrettably, the studio has told her not to discuss. Despite her rapid rise in the movie business, Aaliyah is anxious to reassure her fans that her thespian pursuits will not be to the detriment of her music.
“Music still comes first” she states flatly. “In fact, right now I’m in the middle of recording my new album with Timbaland. We’ve recorded a lot of songs of which probably only four or five will make it. I’m trying to get it finished by the end of the summer.”
Her debut album on Blackground/Jive Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number, produced by former mentor R. Kelly containing the hits ‘Back & Forth’ and ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’ set the ball rolling back in ’94. The two parted ways in a cloud of controversy after Vibe magazine printed a supposed marriage certificate between them when Aaliyah was still only 16. She subsequently left Jive Records and has had nothing to do with Kelly since.
Her career hit over-drive with her ground-breaking sophomore set, One In A Million on Background/Atlantic which teamed her up with the then fledgling writing team of Missy Elliott and Tim “Timbaland” Mosley. Their unique brand of smoothed out R&B over trippy stuttered hip-hop beats redefined the sound of urban America and spawned a slew of imitators. Hits such as ‘One In A Million’ and ‘Hot Like Fire’ not to mention the anthemic ‘Are You That Somebody’ cemented Aaliyah’s image as the midriff-baring street but sweet and chic R&B icon that, along with her producer, set the pulse of black radio. ‘Try Again’ from Romeo… has only continued that ascendency.
Although Aaliyah doesn’t write her own lyrics, she’s adamant that they suit her personality.
“Lyrically I want things to be different” she stresses. “Very deep. I love deep songs. I admire Stevie Wonder because he’s someone that can take a love song and really put you in a whole ‘nother place. I want to touch everybody. I think I’m a sweet person, very laid back but I’m also very complex,” Aaliyah laughs. “I want my music and the work that I do to stress that. From my perspective it can’t be one dimensional. It must have depth.”
Aaliyah’s “depth” was seriously put to the challenge during the filming of Romeo…. One scene in particular stands out in her memory.
“When I had to do my crying scene… man! I had to deal with a lot of pain and emotion to bring the tears up,” she says. “That was the most intimidating part of the whole script. My grandmother passed two years ago and I was very close with her so I thought about her a lot and other painful moments in my life. It was a very depressing, draining day. When I see it now it’s very rewarding to know that I actually did cry and the tears were honest.”
Aside from the tears and stunt work, the character of Trish was one Aaliyah feels worked so well because ultimately it wasn’t too much of a stretch.
“We’re similar in almost everyway” she says. “She’s edgy, she loves her family and that’s what motivates her. I’m exactly like that. She’s a little quicker to speak her mind than me. I’m generally very reserved, and very sweet. One thing about me is that I work hard and I’m a hell of a perfectionist. I’ll re-do vocals three or four times over. I need to get it right.”
After completing her new album she’ll fly off to Australia to shoot her forthcoming film and upon her return will go straight into the production of her new album, the first single of which is expected by the year’s end. It will all culminate in the largest tour she has ever embarked upon next summer.
“Touring is always the most fun part,” says Aaliyah, who has been performing live since her first album was released at fifteen. “On the second tour compared to the first I was more comfortable on stage. I had a better idea of what I wanted with the sets. The next tour is really going to be mind blowing! I know exactly what I want to do.”
© Jeff Lorez, Blues & Soul, 2000