Happy 20th Anniversary to Aaliyah’s sophomore album One in a Million, originally released August 27, 1996.
When you heard Aaliyah, you knew she came to give love.
“From the start, I wanted the creative control and the freedom to make decisions about which direction I'd take this album,” Aaliyah said in the November 2, 1996 issue of the New York Amsterdam News, a few months after her sophomore album One in a Million hit the streets. “I wanted to put more of myself into the music, but at the same time I didn't want to just flip the script on everybody. First time around, I was still getting my footing. This time I just wanted to give it my all and take some chances.”
Few stars who rose to fame in the nineties had more riding on the second time around than Aaliyah—and there was much to contend with for the self-proclaimed street-but-sweet beauty. At the time, the semi-segregated chill of late eighties radio and music television had thawed, once again opening its doors to a wide range of faces and voices of color. As such, the market quickly became crowded with a slew of talented, albeit routine, R&B acts. Throw in the noise around the singer’s own personal challenges, and there was just a whole lot going on. Her gifts were undeniable, but you couldn’t help but wonder, given the temperamental nature of young-head record buyers, if the odds were in her favor.
She certainly had an edge. Aaliyah’s flavor was classy with a bit of bite, a perfect foil to Brandy’s pop-soul and Monica’s traditional, wise-beyond-her-years stylings. Think Natalie Cole in the orbit of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, or Janet Jackson during the peak years of Whitney Houston and Anita Baker. She had her lane and she knew how to work it: Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, her R. Kelly-produced 1994 debut, went platinum and reeled off two gold singles in “Back and Forth” and a fresh take on the Isley Brothers classic “At Your Best (You are Love).” The videos were sleek, the swag undeniable. If there was a successor to Miss Jackson’s groundbreaking, choreographed glamour, this girl was it.
Soon, however, the buzz around the album gave way to the still-murky details of her personal relationship with Kelly. In a turn of events that now magnifies the stark chasm between news cycles of long ago and the ubiquitous social media presence and innuendo of the 21st century, she emerged largely unscathed and poised to move past the disastrous episode.
Looking back, it’s nothing short of miraculous. “Thanks, though, to the management of her protective family, and more importantly, to a fine sophomore opus, the new One in a Million, Aaliyah may not only have survived her melodramas but might just become our next princess superstar,” cultural visionary dream hampton mused in Vibe’s October 1996 issue. As fate would have it, she was right.
Unleashed on August 27, 1996, One in a Million was a beam supporting the bridge between the joyful excesses of early nineties R&B and the burgeoning cool of neo soul, and remains a masterwork of its era. The New Jack Swing dust still in the air when her first album was on the charts was all but gone, leaving in plain view a colorful musical palette in the urban contemporary marketplace. Weeks before the album’s release, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, Meshell Ndegeocello’s Peace Beyond Passion, Toni Braxton’s Secrets, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt were all floating in the R&B Top 20. For the first time in years, plush, soulful gems and hard-edged hip-hop and soul shared the same space. For Aaliyah, the new point of view meant a sharp turn away from Kelly’s more rootsy, Chicago-honed signature toward a darker, futuristic sound.
Marked by a pulsating 17 cuts, One in a Million is a rarity long on grooves and substance, which makes it suitable for both the turn up and comfortable listening. Consistent in its production and songwriting values, the album’s credits feature an army of then-young luminaries that include chief producer Timbaland, Vincent Herbert (yes, Tamar Braxton’s hubby Vincent the Herbert), Rodney Jerkins, Kay Gee, Darryl Simmons, and Missy Elliot. With such diverse talents in the mix, highlights abound.
“If Your Girl Only Knew,” which then-Atlantic executive Eddie Santiago described in Billboard magazine as “a very funky midtempo track, with lots of heavy retro keyboard and organ work, along with live drums and a thumping bassline,” served as the lead single and set the tone for the singer’s reconstituted trajectory. It would have been easy to dismiss the sinewy rhythmic lines as cold and distant, but the opposite was true. Mood and atmosphere had always been hallmarks of Aaliyah’s best work, but here she deftly fuses a number of sensibilities—sexiness, humor, and a bit of the forbidden—in a way few of her contemporaries could.
Like “If Your Girl Only Knew,” the title track brims with a sensual defiance, and it is this newfound voice that gives the collection’s ballads a resonance that hadn’t quite surfaced on Aaliyah’s debut. The sweet, lilting soprano at the heart of “At Your Best” had yielded to a self-aware purr that many of the singer’s listeners—especially the teen girls who mimicked her urban chic look and mannerisms—were likely discovering in their own coming-of-age sagas.
Other slow jams, such as the stellar rendition of the Isley Brothers chestnut “Choosey Lover” (complete with a sly tempo change), “Heartbroken,” and the thoughtful “4 Page Letter” reveal a ripening in Aaliyah’s vocals that is still pure pleasure. Even the carefully calculated Diane Warren pop number “The One I Gave My Heart To” clicks. In the wrong hands it could have easily become merely a tolerable MOR radio hit. But Aaliyah makes it her own, and earned another gold single in the process.
The bangers don’t disappoint either, with Aaliyah bringing the goods on the fan favorite “Hot Like Fire,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” and the bouncy “A Girl Like You.” On the latter, she teams with Naughty by Nature’s Treach for a summer-ready jam that recalls her memorable cameo on the 1995 Junior M.A.F.I.A. hit “I Need You Tonight.” Rather than let her voice get lost in the swirl of bass-heavy production flourishes synonymous with the period, the singer rolls with her surroundings and not against them. Such technique permeates her faithful take on Marvin Gaye’s immortal dancer “Got to Give it Up,” which features the always on-time Slick Rick and a shuffling sample of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” While it was clear that her reach was expanding, Aaliyah was always home in the midst of beats and rhymes. It was her element.
Not surprisingly, critics praised the album and the singer’s direction. “Between the songs, Aaliyah's self-assurance and production from a variety of young sources, all of this album's winning elements are right on the money,” wrote Los Angeles Times scribe Corrine Johnson. Around the same time, People magazine was equally enthusiastic, raving that “The young star delivers one subtle, sensuous performance after another. In an R&B world overloaded with teen queens, it's nice to see Aaliyah living up to both her album titles.” By the time the album peaked at number 2 R&B and number 18 pop and went platinum, it was clear that she had dodged anything close to a sophomore slump. Fans had spoken loud and clear.
One in a Million cemented Aaliyah’s standing among the emerging divas of her time, showcasing a multi-hyphenate we have rarely seen since that rich time in R&B. Much like Brandy’s Never Say Never and Monica’s The Boy is Mine (both from 1998)—or Jackson’s Control 10 years prior—it was a transitional effort that marked a move toward artistic independence and a renewed, worldly purview.
The hits kept coming, with the soundtrack offerings “Are You That Somebody?” (from 1998’s Dr. Dolittle) and “Try Again” (from the 2000 film Romeo Must Die, in which the singer starred) keeping her in the public’s consciousness. She landed a major role in the vampire flick Queen of the Damned, and was rumored to be Whitney Houston’s pick for a remake of the seventies girl group musical-drama Sparkle. Possibility seemed endless.
As her self-titled 2001 album arrived, we saw a more open, womanly Aaliyah. The flowing mane of black hair framed the supple features it once seemed to mask. The trademark midriff was now accentuated by a shapely, but still lithe, physique. A glow was there, which made her tragic death on August 25, 2001, that much more shocking—particularly for those of us who, like Aaliyah, maneuvered teen angst in the halcyon days of the nineties. For a generation of R&B and dance music fans, her death was a defining push from youth into young adulthood. In a flash, we learned that time is not forever.
To this day, there’s a palpable melancholy that cradles the voice, the mystique, and the promise of Aaliyah’s future as an all-around entertainer. It brings to mind the criminally short journeys of Minnie Riperton, the Notorious B.I.G., and Amy Winehouse—or lesser-known lights like Tasha Thomas, David Oliver, and M.C. Trouble—who are frozen in sonic spaces of what-ifs and if-onlys.
That we still mourn Aaliyah’s loss after so long is a testament to not just her overall musical legacy, but also the enduring significance of One in a Million.