As Aaliyah was filming her starring role in 2002’s “Queen of the Damned” — the sequel to 1994’s “Interview With the Vampire” — she was, contrary to her character, feeling royally blessed.
Not only was the “One in a Million” singer on her way to becoming a certified movie star — having already gone up against Jet Li in the action hit “Romeo Must Die” — but after long days of filming “Queen” in Melbourne, Australia, at night she was also recording her third album hot on the heels of her first No. 1 single, 2000’s “Try Again.”
“We all tripped off of that. She must have had some spinach,” Eric Seats — one of the main producers on Aaliyah’s self-titled final LP — told The Post. “She came in never complaining, always ready to work. She would do two or three songs a night and then go film [again]. Her superwoman powers were on point. When you’re hungry, nothing’s gonna stop you.”
But sadly, something did stop the rising star from what seemed to be an inevitable ascension: On Aug. 25, 2001, just weeks after her self-titled album was released and following the filming of her “Rock the Boat” video in the Bahamas, Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash. The death of Babygirl — as she will aways be affectionately known by family, friends and fans — at just 22 years of age, rocked the music world.
Aaliyah Haughton had already survived the scandal of a secret marriage to her mentor R. Kelly — producer of her debut album, 1994’s “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” — when she was just 15 years old. (The embattled Kelly, whose sex-trafficking trial began in a Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday, allegedly got her a fake ID so that he could marry the underaged Aaliyah, who was pregnant at the time, according to the prosecution — a claim Kelly denies.) But no matter the controversy, it seemed as if Aaliyah was destined to triumph again and again.
“She would have been the queen of the world right now,” said producer Jeffery “J.Dub” Walker, who also worked on Aaliyah’s last studio LP, also known as “The Red Album.” “She was on that trajectory. I’m just grateful to be a part of her legacy and to have experienced such an angel.”
An angel whose sound — a futuristic fusion of R&B, pop and hip-hop — and trendsetting style inspired everyone from Beyoncé and Rihanna to Justin Timberlake and Drake, who has called Aaliyah “the biggest influence on my music.”
Still, as much of an impact as Aaliyah had already made before her death, there was the sense that this young woman was just getting started. “You’re talking about a seven-year career, but her identity was only taking shape in those last five years,” said Kathy Iandoli, author of “Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah,” a new biography released this week. “The sky was literally the limit for her.”
After appearing on “Star Search” when she was just 10, the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-bred Aaliyah saw her career take off after her uncle and Blackground Entertainment label head Barry Hankerson scored her a deal with Jive Records — and then introduced his niece to R. Kelly. At the time, Kelly — coming off of sexed-up hits such as “Bump N’ Grind” and “Your Body’s Callin’” — was Jive’s biggest star, and Aaliyah was just 12 when she first sang for him.
“Barry knew that Kelly could mold her into something more successful than anyone had ever imagined,” Iandoli writes of the pairing, which would eventually lead to a 14-year-old Aaliyah — then a freshman dance major at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts — recording “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” with Kelly. And it was Kelly who wrote everything from her hit debut single, “Back & Forth,” to the title track, about a teenage girl wanting to seduce an older man: “Age ain’t nothing but a number/Throwin’ down ain’t nothing but a thing.”
“If you listen to the lyrics that R. Kelly had written for her, it was constantly her trying to provoke the older gentleman,” said Iandoli. “It was almost like he was trying to write his innocence into the music.”
But despite the fact that Aaliyah and Kelly secretly married without her parents’ knowledge in August 1994 (they had it annulled six months later), Iandoli said, “This wasn’t a love story. It was just another example of how R. Kelly attempted to damage another young black woman. But you know what? She left the situation, she endured getting booed at concerts [by Kelly fans], she endured people not wanting to work with her out of fear of not being able to work with him.”
Despite the success of her debut album, Aaliyah even jumped labels to Atlantic Records. “In the best interests of her career, she had to separate herself from R. Kelly and his camp,” said Emil Wilbekin, Native Son founder and former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, which uncovered the marriage certificate falsely listing that Aaliyah was 18 at the time of the marriage, thus rendering it illegal.
But on 1996’s “One in a Million,” Aaliyah found her groundbreaking groove with some new collaborators. “Teaming up with Timbaland and Missy Elliott kind of took her to the next level,” said Wilbekin of Aaliyah’s “ahead-of-the-curve” mix of trippy hip-hop beats and smooth R&B vocals. “It was a winning combination.”
Growing up with her fans, Aaliyah — whose tomboyish yet feminine style led her to become a Tommy Hilfiger model — embraced her sexuality and self-empowerment on her third and final LP. One of the “Aaliyah” hits, “Rock the Boat,” was almost deleted by Seats before it even had a chance to make the album. Instead, it became the single that sent the singer to the Bahamas for that fateful video shoot in August 2001.
“Rapture [Stewart, Seats’ co-producer] and I wanted to go to the Bahamas to watch them shoot the video to our song,” said Seats. “But we didn’t end up going.”
After having been anxious about the flight from Miami, Aaliyah had even more misgivings about the return flight. “She had questions about her safety the moment she laid eyes on the airplane taking her to the Bahamas from Miami,” Iandoli writes. “For one, she hated flying; and even further, she hated the idea of boarding a tiny aircraft. She was anxiety ridden about that initial trip.”
Even Aaliyah’s music-exec beau Damon Dash — co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records with Jay-Z — told her not to get on the plane and that he would get her a private jet for the following day. In “Baby Girl,” Kingsley Russell — who, then 13, was Aaliyah’s luggage carrier — recalls hearing whispers about the plane being overloaded: “They were like, ‘How are they gonna put this girl on this little plane with all of this heavy stuff when the plane is overweight?’ ”
A frustrated Aaliyah, complaining of a headache, went back to the taxi van and dozed off while the whole mess was being sorted out. Then, according to Russell, someone from Aaliyah’s entourage woke her up and handed her some type of pill. And after nearly two hours of back-and-forth, Russell says, “They took her out of the van; she didn’t even know she was getting boarded on a plane. She went on the airplane asleep.”
The Cessna 402B twin-engine plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing Aaliyah and the other eight passengers. Investigators determined that the aircraft was 700 pounds over its limit.
After Aaliyah’s lavish funeral in New York — featuring a procession in which her body was carried in a horse-drawn hearse — the star’s music didn’t get to live on as it should have. Aside from her “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” album, none of her catalog was available to stream or download for years, as Hankerson’s Blackground Records — which owns her masters — battled with Aaliyah’s estate, which is controlled by her mother, Diane Haughton.
That will finally change when “One in a Million” hits digital services on Friday, followed by the “Romeo Must Die” soundtrack on Sept. 3, “Aaliyah” on Sept. 10, and lastly “I Care 4 U,” her greatest hits set, on Oct. 8.
“The fans can finally hear her legacy,” said J.Dub, who also has some previously unreleased Aaliyah tracks. “A whole ’nother generation is about to be exposed to her.”
Still, it’s hard not to ask “what if?” about where Aaliyah would have been today had she lived. No doubt, she would have been a superstar, said Wilbekin: “She would definitely be in the stratosphere of Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, J.Lo, Beyoncé for sure.”
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