Bouncing back from a scandal in the world of entertainment is no easy feat. Being a high-profile figure in the public eye puts a person under a microscope, where every movement, word, or expression is placed under scrutiny and is fair game for critique. So when the gossip-mongers and tabloids happen to come across a bit of juicy information regarding someone of note, the damages can be irreparable and can result in ruin. The late Aaliyah Dana Haughton was once the center of controversy herself, due to an alleged marriage to then-27 year old R&B superstar R. Kelly, who had served as her mentor and was the chief player in the molding of the teen sensation’s 1994 smash debut, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. Aaliyah, then 15 years old, would refute all of the allegations, but a marriage certificate obtained by Vibe magazine indicated that Aaliyah and Kelly had indeed been married on August 31, 1994, in Sheraton Gateway Suites in Rosemont, Illinois.
Listed as 18 on the marriage certificate, the marriage, which was deemed illegal, would ultimately be annulled in February 1995, but the hailstorm of controversy surrounding the pair would be harder to shake. Despite having a multi-platinum debut, Aaliyah’s team found difficulty locking in producers to work on her sophomore album. Aaliyah would credit the love of her family and fans in helping her cope with the madness.
“That was a very rough time for me,” Aaliyah said in an 1996 interview with Blues & Soul magazine of the period following the scandal. “It was very tumultuous. But I got through it. I had The Lord in my life and my family and I had a lot of support from my fans.”
However, one thing Aaliyah vowed to herself was to not let her past missteps define her career or her worth as an artist. “You know, through all that which I went through, I said to myself I’m not gonna let this break me down, I’m not gonna hide. I said I’m gonna face this adversity. I’m gonna get past this.” And one of the first steps to moving forward and on with her life was to extricate herself from the artistic brain-trust that had guided the direction of her debut and find another collaborator that could help take her sound to the next level. With stakes as high as the ones that were placed on Aaliyah’s sophomore set and the pressure to deliver an album that would place her back in good graces with the public, many would’ve expected Aaliyah and her handlers to angle for a lead-producer with an established track record of hits to their credit. But Aaliyah would go the complete opposite direction, tapping a relatively unknown producer named Timbaland, a refugee from DeVante Swing’s Swing Mob collective, to helm the project.
When asked about her decision to work with Timbaland extensively on One In A Million, Aaliyah said it was due to their organic working relationship and undeniable chemistry in the studio. “It was just like working with a friend, because we have a lot in common. He originally sent in a demo and I didn’t really like the song but I liked the track, so I got in touch with his people and said I’d like to work with him but I wanted the songs to be a certain way. We did two demos and really clicked and it turned into 7 songs.” Those seven songs, and two interludes, would account for more than half of the material on One In A Million, but the glue that would help it all stick together would be a talented songwriter and rising artist named Missy Elliott. A fellow Swing Mob defect and Timbaland’s artistic partner in crime, Missy would jump at the chance to write for, and help reinvent, one of the hottest young stars in all of music.
Missy and Timbaland’s presence is felt even before Aaliyah’s on One in a Million, with Missy introducing the teenage beauty, summoning Aaliyah from her sabbatical and crooning atop jittery production, courtesy of Timbo. Purring “I’ve got the beats for da streets/Everything I make is so unique,” Aaliyah lets her sultry vocals loose, teasing the listeners with a few lines before diving into the proceedings with “Hot Like Fire.” Instantly putting any questions about whether the events that occurred between the release of Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and One in a Million would cause her to tread lightly when it came to sexually suggestive material, the Detroit bred beauty wastes no time letting listeners imaginations run wild. Delivering the lines “I know you’ve been wait, you’ve been waitin a long time for me/But if you wait a little while longer, this is how it’ll be,” Aaliyah promises to be hot and ready for her patient lover on this enticing opening offering.
The title track, “One in a Million,” which was the second single released from the album in the U.S., follows “Make It Hot” and immediately captures your full attention with its pounding bass, quirky synths and chopped vocal samples. “Baby you don’t know, what you do to me/Between me and you, I feel a chemistry/Won’t let no one come and take your place/Cause the love you give can’t be replaced,” Aaliyah sings as she professes her infatuation for her main squeeze, who she views as “one in a million” and a love she can’t resist. “One in a Million” would be one of the biggest hits of Aaliyah’s career and his noted as one of the signature records in her short, but decorated career.
Lust turns to distrust on the classic tune, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” which finds Aaliyah chiding a two-timing fella for his attempts to court her despite already having a faithful girl to call his own. Produced by Timbaland, the song was released as the lead-single from One in a Million and was one of the first hit singles to showcase Timbaland’s talents on a widespread level. Written by Missy Elliott, the content is raw, with melodies aplenty throughout, with key lyrics like “She would probably leave you alone/She would probably curse you out and unplug her phone/I bet she’d be glad that you was gone/And then she wouldn’t have to worry” given woman a blueprint on how to settle the score with an unfaithful mate. “If Your Girl Only Knew” would prove to be a massive hit, reaching the No. 11 spot on the Hot 100 and topping the R&B Singles chart, with it’s accompanying video become one of the more memorable clips of its era.
Lovers can’t be choosey, as Aaliyah laments on her reworking of the Isley Brothers classic, “Choosey Lover,” infusing a bit of hip-hop flavor into her rendition, with respectable results. A nod to Marvin Gaye comes in the form of “Got to Give It Up,” which pairs Aaliyah with elder rap statesman Slick Rick, but the track serves more as a bridge to the potent One in a Million heater, “4 Page Letter.” Singing “Mama always told me to be careful who I love/And daddy always told me make sure he’s right/I always had my eyes on this one particular guy/I was too shy so I decided to write,” Aaliyah gets intimate about her inner-yearning for the apple of her eye and decides to get her feelings off of her chest by penning a detailed letter, which we get a glimpse of in audio form. Co-written by Missy and Timbaland and produced by the latter, “4 Page Letter” would not perform as well on radio as “If Your Girl Only Knew” or “One in a Million” in terms of airplay, it is recognized as one of Aaliyah’s greatest works to date and a definitive slow burner.
One in a Million may have been Timbaland’s coming-out party as a producer, but he’s not the only boardsman who helped contribute to the album’s greatness. Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins provides one of the more impressive deep cuts on the LP with “Everything’s Gonna Be Alight,” while Jermaine Dupri lends his midas touch to the album with “I Gotcha’ Back,” an airy number that also suffices in terms of quality. But it’s without question Timbaland’s influence that shines the brightest in terms of its soundscapes. “Heartbroken,” one of the more sullen selections on One in a Million, it Timbo at his most tame, as he provides a relatively stripped-down beat by Timbaland standards for Aaliyah to vent over. However, the most somber and heartfelt moment on the singer’s sophomore set is “The One I Gave My Heart To,” which was written by Diane Warren and produced by Daryl Simmons. The most vocally ambitious number on One in a Million by far, Aaliyah belts out her feelings of pain after giving her heart to the wrong guy and having it abused and her trust misused. “The One I Gave My Heart To” would be the final single release from One in a Million, and its highest-charting single, peaking in the Top 10 of the Hot 100, her third most successful charting single at that point.
One in a Million debuted at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 with 40,500 copies sold in its first week on shelves, a bit of an underwhelming showing for someone coming off of a monster debut, extraneous controversies aside. The album’s position on the album chart would fail to improve by much, peaking at No. 18, but as singles like “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “One in a Million,” and “4 Page Letter” began to gain steam, sales figures would steadily rise until it reached platinum status in February of 1997 for shipments exceeding one million copies. One in a Million would eventually sell over 3 million copies in the U.S. alone and 8 million worldwide and is her most successful album to date.
Critics, who had been less than enthused by Aaliyah’s serviceable vocal abilities, were pleasantly surprised by One in a Million, noting the evolution of her sound. Connie Johnson, a writer for the L.A. Times at the time of One in a Million’s release, went as far as comparing the album to the iconic Janet Jackson’s own breakout album, Control, in her review of the album. Writing “Kelly, who produced Aaliyah’s 1994 hits “Back and Forth” and “At Your Best (You Are Love),” took a girl with admittedly thin vocal chops–but a truckload of poise and precocity–and turned her into the most convincing studio-produced marvel this side of “Control”-era Janet Jackson,” an assertion that was echoed by other pundits.
dream hampton also noted the shades of Ms. Jackson on One in a Million in her own review of the album while simultaneously juxtaposing that with her position in the race for teenage R&B queen supremacy. “Our reigning divas are all 30, or creeping up on it, and will inevitably be replaced by younger bodies that eighth grade black girls will dream of occupying,” hampton noted. “If Brandy wants to be Whitney Houston enough, she may very well become her (minus the pipes, of course). And Miss Thang Monica, with all her grownness, may inadverdently inherit Anita Baker’s title (again, minus the pipes). So why can’t Aaliyah be tomorrow’s Janet (minus the royal family, of course)?”
In terms of her ambitions as a pop culture figure, Aaliyah had other idols.
“I would like to model myself on Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand,” Aaliyah herself stated in an interview with Blues & Soul magazine prior to the release of One in a Million. “They went into other things. Whitney went into acting, Barbra into directing. The key to this business is longevity and that’s what I want to have.”
Aaliyah may have accomplished her goal of following into Whitney Houston’s footsteps with her appearances in films like Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned, and looked to be on her way to becoming a box office attraction. But whether it was the dance moves and her ability and her effective-if-limited vocal talents on smash hits that channel Janet, or her sweet charsima with merely a wink or timely-placed expression screams Whitney, Aaliyah managed to incorporate so much to attract so many. And she landed a classic and influential album in One in a Million, one that proved for millions of fans and artists worldwide, that she was truly in a league with the greats but a class all her own.