THREE WEEKS BACK, I lay in a sea-salted bathtub with candles, bubbles, and headphones, listening to Aaliyah. Lamenting the state of my love life during a midnight soak, I used the multisensory experience to remind myself of the type of woman I wanted most to attract. Focusing on the album cover now and again, there was no doubt in my mind that, with a female like Aaliyah romantically in my cipher, all would be right with the world.
The very next day, I sat with some music journalists in a suite at Hotel Giraffe, patiently awaiting the arrival of the new Jay-Z album. An hour late, Roc-a-Fella CEO Damon Dash walked into the room with the masters. And Aaliyah. Concentrated meditation is a powerful thing, I thought. With the power of your thoughts, you can attract anything to your Self that you choose. It was a lesson Aaliyah Haughton had learned long ago; may have always known. Born in Brooklyn in 1979, raised most of her life in Detroit, and gone at 22 (she died Saturday in a fiery plane crash off the Bahamas that also killed eight others), Aaliyah was clear on leaving an entertainer’s legacy from her very beginnings. It seems she manifested herself in the pop cultural landscape as easily as I’d inadvertently willed her into my immediate surroundings.
In ’94, long after a preteen defeat on Star Search, Aaliyah released Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, under the wing of producer R. Kelly. The number-one Law of Success in hiphop’s exalted Zulu Nation Infinity Lessons declares that the greatest sin is gossip. Accordingly, I was never too interested in what the deal was with Aaliyah’s underage marriage to Kelly, or her recent ties with Dame Dash. But Kelly did right by the 15-year-old ingenue in the studio, to the point where her post-Kelly career seemed in doubt.
Her One in a Million follow-up deaded that. Timbaland reinvented Aaliyah as an artist whose body of work I looked forward to seeing unfold. She dared to attack and conquer Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’ (with Slick Rick, no less). ‘4 Page Letter’, ‘Hot Like Fire’, ‘If Your Girl Only Knew’: Timbaland’s futuristic-leaning production carried a subliminal promise to make Aaliyah into the black femme fatale superstar of the 21st century. ‘Are You That Somebody?’ and ‘Try Again’ were mere soundtrack cuts, yet their radio omnipresence spoke to everyone’s appetite for Aaliyah to fulfill her promise.
Upon hearing of Lennon’s murder outside the Dakota, McCartney notoriously remarked to the media that his death was “a drag.” I spent this weekend out of town, in multimedia alienation; my brother tracked me down Sunday night to break the news, and all I could say, over and over, was “That’s fucked up.” Like McCartney, I felt so much more, stuff beyond articulation. Remorse. Sorrow. Anger. Agitation. Aaliyah’s was an ending as senseless as those of Tupac Shakur or Christopher Wallace. Worse, some will say, because Aaliyah never dispensed any “ready to die” or “how long will they mourn me” energy into the universe to boomerang to her.
My brother’s news brought back images of Janet Jackson’s MTV Icon Award tribute celebration from earlier this summer. Destiny’s Child performed, but Aaliyah didn’t, and the reason was obvious to me and my boys sitting on the couch checking it out: Aaliyah is Janet. (Was? Damn.) Just like Janet herself never had no real business playing Dorothy Dandridge in nobody’s biopic, because she is Dandridge. The glamorized drama or dramatized glamorousness in Janet’s life rivals that of Dandridge. (Just like Madonna portraying Marilyn Monroe would be a mistake.) Aaliyah, at 22, was too busy building that type of mystique to be onstage gushing over Jan like a fan. Aaliyah seemed more like Janet’s peer than Destiny’s Child, Brandy, or Monica. Shit, she, Dandridge, and Jackson could’ve been sisters from different mothers. Another reason her loss is like a brick to the chest.
“Has there ever been an artist to pass away that the record industry didn’t pimp?” my best friend asked. I took part in a brief debate about Hendrix, Shakur, and Biggie, about family estates of artists providing permission for certain things, etc. There was already a lot of cartoon imagery connected to the promotion of Aaliyah. I do not look forward to any animated videos coming out of Virgin to propel the shelf life of this princess’s record. Please, not that.
Back in high school daze, girls would often gender-correct the lyrics to records sung by guys, i.e., “I love you, girl” would become “I love you, boy.” Regarding records sung by females, I recall always keeping the original gender in their lyrics intact, as if the women in question (Sheila E., Cherrelle, Sade) were singing about me. Or to me, directly. Stuff like, “To let a fine man like you go, she must be insane,” from ‘I Care 4 U’. “There’s no need to worry/Boy, if you call on me/I’ll come in a hurry.” This was the ego-boosting, esteem-repairing sweetness I came to Aaliyah for in the bathtub. Meeting Aaliyah for the first time last year, in D.C. at BET HQ, she seemed self-assertive, in command: entertaining flirtation from Rap City host Tigger (for her, I’m sure, entertaining male flirtation was a daily routine), hitting her points in an interview about her role in Romeo Must Die and her album-in-progress.
Monday, I returned to Brooklyn from out of town, headed to my bathroom. My portable radio rested on the sink. Atop the radio, the Aaliyah CD case. That’s fucked up.
© Miles Marshall Lewis, The Village Voice, August 2001