Hard-Working Aaliyah Packed Hit Albums, Movies Into Short Life

Singer/actress, 22, recalled by colleagues as 'little sister to the industry,' an 'angel.'

Aaliyah Dana Haughton died doing what she spent most of her life doing — working.

The 22-year-old singer and actress was killed in a plane crash Saturday in the Bahamas. She was returning to the United States after shooting a video with director Hype Williams for “Rock the Boat.” The sensual, Caribbean-flavored track in which Aaliyah gives love-making instructions to her boyfriend was already in heavy radio rotation and appeared to be the home-run single off her third album, Aaliyah, released a month earlier.

With that album already certified gold, the singer, who was still in school when she recorded her first two albums, was enjoying yet another success as she awaited the release of the movie “Queen of the Damned” and anticipated work on two sequels to “The Matrix.”

Aaliyah’s appeal transcended her capacity to hit high notes effortlessly or to cry on cue. It reflected a style sense (she was a Tommy Hilfiger spokesperson in 1997) that made her look as beautiful in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt as in an Armani frock.

Her charisma also lay in her willingness to show love to other artists, as she did for Lil’ Kim during last summer’s Notorious K.I.M. release party, when she danced the night away with her friend Jay-Z. And she seemed to genuinely appreciate and reciprocate the love her fans bestowed upon her. (Click for photos of Aaliyah through the years)

“There are times when I sit back and look at my career as a whole and realize I am truly blessed to be doing something I love,” she said during a taping of MTV’s “Diary” in July. “Sometimes I’m taken aback. I’m very happy. There’s so much more I want to do in my career, it’s beyond words.”

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number introduced the New York-born, Detroit-raised 15-year-old to the world in 1994, setting the stage for fellow teen platinum princesses Britney Spears, Brandy and Monica. R. Kelly wrote and produced most of the album; it didn’t hurt that he was managed at the time by Aaliyah’s uncle (and label CEO), Barry Hankerson.

The album’s first single, the midtempo “Back and Forth,” was propelled by Kelly’s G-funk synthesizer beat and the teen’s stratospheric voice. The track shot to the top of the R&B charts and to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart.

Although her gentle vocals were catchy enough to make her a pop star, the baggy pants covering her slender figure, shades and bandanas gave her ample street cred. Aaliyah was hip-hop, too.

The late Notorious B.I.G. recognized this when he picked her to sing alongside Lil’ Kim and the rest of Junior M.A.F.I.A. on the 1995 hit “I Need You Tonight.” She would eventually be featured on tracks with MCs including DMX, Kris Kross and Da Brat, Nas and Naughty by Nature’s Treach.

“She was like a little sister to the industry, everybody loved her,” said Treach, who worked with Aaliyah on “Girl Like You” from her second album, One in a Million (1996). “From when we met her till now, she was never on no superstar sh–. If she met you, it was like she knew you all her life, never no phoniness.”

“Aaliyah was a real beautiful sister,” RZA said Monday. “She’s my favorite artist. She always came with a phat single.”

Rap Renaissance woman Missy Elliott also wrote songs for Aaliyah’s second album, and producer Timbaland’s harder space-age sonic booms helped the record go multiplatinum. The title track, “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “Hot Like Fire” found Aaliyah evolving artistically. More mature and less shy, she was still able to convey an amiable innocence when she sang, in “4 Page Letter,” about working up the courage to let a guy know she was interested. The three Million collaborators, along with Magoo and Ginuwine, began to refer to themselves as the “Superfriends.”

Rather than return immediately into the studio for a follow-up, Aaliyah opted for a rest. This was cut short when she landed a role in the movie “Romeo Must Die” alongside Jet Li and DMX. “Romeo” was a box office smash, and displayed a new side of Aaliyah, as she lit up the screen with sass and sexiness as Trish O’Day. Her Timbaland-produced hit “Try Again” propelled “Romeo” ‘s 2000 soundtrack album to double-platinum certification. The motivational number is nominated for R&B/Soul or Rap Song of the Year at the seventh annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, to be taped in Santa Monica, California, on Tuesday night.

On July 17, she released Aaliyah, her first album in more than five years, and it debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It has sold more than 447,000 copies to date.

Aaliyah recorded the album while filming the sensual title role in the film adaptation of the Anne Rice novel “Queen of the Damned,” which is due in early 2002 (see “Aaliyah Finishes New Album During Break From Movies” ). She was also cast in the two “Matrix” sequels and had filmed a few scenes earlier this year, according to a spokesperson for Warner Bros. Pictures. She was scheduled to join the rest of the cast, which is filming both sequels concurrently, in Australia later this fall. It’s too early to tell whether Aaliyah’s scenes will end up in either of the sequels’ final cuts, the spokesperson said.

“I would come home from the set and say to my wife, ‘This girl is a freak — she never loses her temper, she never gets impatient, she’s a dream to direct,’ ” said “Queen of the Damned” director Michael Rymer. “You give her a note and she’s like a machine, she executes it. She put up with hours of makeup and teeth and contact lenses and skimpy costumes in the freezing cold all night. She was a very pure spirit. It’s easy to say now, and we said it then, at the end of the day, that girl is an … angel.

“I’m a writer and I couldn’t contrive a more tragic scenario,” Rymer said of Aaliyah’s demise. “The only real consolation is that she died doing what she loved to do. She was not a frustrated person whose goals had eluded her. She was doing what she loved and had nothing to regret.”

Tune in Tuesday night at 5 p.m. ET for “The Life of Aaliyah,” an MTV News Now special report which will air live immediately following “TRL.”

For a feature interview with Aaliyah, check out “Aaliyah: Been A Long Time.” For reaction from fans and other readers, see “You Tell Us: Fans Remember Aaliyah.”