Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 45, which breaks down the life and legacy of Aaliyah.
Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, in 1979. Her family moved to Detroit when she was 5. At 6 years old she had one line in a school production of Annie—the line was “You’re gonna get the paddle.” She starred in 42nd Street, she starred in Hello, Dolly!, she sang at weddings and parties, she sang a lot of Whitney Houston songs, et cetera. At 10 years old she went on Star Search and lost. Has anyone of consequence ever won Star Search? Aaliyah lost on Star Search. LeAnn Rimes lost on Star Search. Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child, Girls Tyme quite infamously lost on Star Search. Alanis Morissette, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Usher, Pitbull. Did Pitbull lose to Nas on Star Search? Or when you won did Ed McMahon lead you backstage and push you into an abyss? Billy Porter won, I guess.
I will let her explain this. Here is Aaliyah, recounting her Star Search experience, to Late Night Host You Forgot About Craig Kilborn. She’s on Craig Kilborn’s show in 2000 to promote Romeo Must Die. She tells Craig that her name means “The highest, most exalted one—the best.” Craig brings up Star Search. She acts embarrassed, she says, Yeah, I was on Star Search when I was 10, I sang “My Funny Valentine.” And Craig plays a little clip of Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine,” and then he asks Aaliyah a really excellent question.
Any question that gets her to sing is an excellent question. I just wanted you to hear her voice, unadorned. It’s worth noting that Craig Kilborn, historically, is not often the voice of reason, or restraint. Restraint was not his brand. Also note that Aaliyah still remembers getting three and three-quarters stars on Star Search. Every major celebrity’s got their own “Michael Jordan got cut from his high school varsity team” moment. FOCUS. I’m stalling. So yeah, after Star Search, Aaliyah’s uncle, her maternal uncle Barry Hankerson, at this point is a somewhat enigmatic show-business big shot. He’s an artist manager, he produces theater, he married—and divorced, quite acrimoniously—Motown icon Gladys Knight. So Barry’s in Chicago producing a play, and he stumbles across a young, fame-hungry, high-school-dropout busker named Robert Sylvester Kelly. A superstar in the making. Barry becomes R. Kelly’s manager. R. Kelly’s on his way to becoming a superstar. In 1991, while R. Kelly’s working on his first album, Barry brings his fame-hungry, superstar-in-the-making 12-year-old niece, Aaliyah, to the studio to meet R. Kelly. As Aaliyah would explain to Vibe a few years later, “I sang for him, and he liked my sound.”
That is according to a new biography called Baby Girl: Better Known As Aaliyah, written by Kathy Iandoli. Came out in August 2021. Kathy’s book starts with a brief chapter in which she says that when she started writing her book she intended to more or less write R. Kelly out of it. She didn’t want to disrespect Aaliyah’s legacy. Kathy writes, “I also didn’t want to dignify R. Kelly with any credit for her career, despite him being one of the main reasons we learned about Aaliyah in the first place.” But the conclusion Kathy ultimately comes to is “disregarding R. Kelly’s chapter in Aaliyah’s life would be denying Aaliyah another title she so greatly deserved: ‘survivor.’”
Aaliyah’s first album, largely written and produced by R. Kelly, comes out in 1994. She was 15 years old. It’s called Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.
What do we do with this record? I’m asking. I haven’t the slightest idea what to do with this record. I don’t know if there’s a single album in pop-music history more fundamentally cursed than Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. If you eliminate all context, if you know absolutely nothing about her, and her collaborators, and her situation—if she’s just a random girl on the cover with a random blurry guy in the background on the cover—then this is a wonderful, mid-’90s R&B debut that establishes Aaliyah as a teenaged superstar with a smoky and sinuous voice and a truly staggering charisma-to-force ratio. Maximum charisma. Minimum force. She’s not a volcanic belter like Whitney or Mariah or Aretha, but her falsetto can float off into the stratosphere, into deep space, and her lower register, those low notes can drill down into the core of the earth without disturbing the ground beneath her feet. She can knock you over with a feather. More of a Janet Jackson vibe. That’s about as high as my praise can get, about anything, anybody.
There is bearable context, as mid-’90s teenage R&B goes. In her book, Kathy Iandoli says that Aaliyah from the onset was often described as “street but sweet.” Soft when she wants to be, hard when she needs to be. And if you want you can plot like-minded young R&B singers from this era somewhere on that spectrum, from Street to Sweet. It’s reductive, but what isn’t? So Brandy’s self-titled debut album comes out in 1994; Monica’s debut album Miss Thang comes out in ’95, and Brandy’s whole vibe is widely perceived as sweeter, let’s say—more sitcom-friendly. And in 1998, when Brandy and Monica put out “The Boy Is Mine,” that contrast, that hypothetical Street vs. Sweet personality conflict, is one of many splendid sources of conflict. Also in 1998, Aaliyah herself sings, “Sometimes I’m goody-goody / Right now I’m naughty-naughty.” It sounds great when she says it. And the young aspiring superstars who follow in Aaliyah’s wake will all navigate that goody-goody/naughty-naughty divide, in their own ways: Mya, Amerie, Tweet, Ashanti, even Beyoncé.
But here, now—on her debut album—Aaliyah, at 15, has nailed it. She has struck a perfect balance; she has honed an inimitable, feather-light-but-indestructible physical voice that everyone, of course, will try to imitate. She is fully formed, she is destined for greatness, and on a song literally called “Street Thing,” where she sings with just a little more force, she is already achieving greatness.
But you can hear him, right? You don’t want to. You wish you could erase him from this record, and maybe erase him from your brain. But R. Kelly produced Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, and wrote every song except one, and he spent 20-plus years as a street-but-sweet R&B megastar himself. And as a consequence, as even a casual pop-music fan, you’ve likely absorbed R. Kelly’s specific boudoir-gospel vibe and melodic sensibility whether you wanted to or not, and you can hear him all over this record whether you want to or not. And this is fundamental to the curse of Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. The knowledge you bring to it.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.