Although Aaliyah was only 22 years old when she was killed Saturday in a plane crash, the musicians and movie directors who remembered her this week almost unanimously noted her artistic maturity — both as a singer unafraid to push R&B’s envelope and as an actress whose commitment to her craft belied her age.
She released only three albums and appeared onscreen in one film — she was set to follow her performance in 2000’s “Romeo Must Die” with turns in “Queen of the Damned” and both sequels to “The Matrix” — but nearly everyone who worked with Aaliyah pegged her as a creative force on the ascent (see “Aaliyah Mourned As Artist Who Had ’Limitless Potential'” ). (Click for photos of Aaliyah through the years.)
“As a performer, she was one of the best I have ever seen do what she does,” said Hype Williams, who directed the “Rock the Boat” video Aaliyah filmed in the Bahamas just before she died (see “Aaliyah Plane Crash Investigation: No End In Sight” ). Williams said working on the clip with her was like working with family.
Aaliyah, who collaborated with such names as Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Rodney Jerkins and Naughty by Nature’s Treach, was no producer’s puppet. When the 17-year-old went into the studio with Treach in 1996 to work on One in a Million, her second album, she clearly wanted an artistic partner (see “Timbaland, P. Diddy, Other Artists React To Aaliyah’s Death” ).
“She was like my li’l sis,” Treach said Monday. “She’d come up and put her arm next to me like, ’Listen, we gonna make this song together. I don’t want you to do just one verse and it’s over. We gonna do the hook together.”
Jerkins, who worked with Aaliyah on “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and a remix of “One in a Million,” marveled at the singer’s artistic growth between her 1996 effort and this summer’s eponymous release, which found her examining the complexities of adult romance (see “Hard-Working Aaliyah Packed Hit Albums, Movies Into Short Life” ).
“She grew like crazy from the time I worked with her to the stuff she’s doing now,” Jerkins said. “She was trying to find herself before. But by the third album, she was more of a performer, she became more of an artist.”
Jermaine Dupri, who also worked on One in a Million, characterized Aaliyah as a risk taker and groundbreaker with a sound unlike anyone else’s.
“I think it was fly that she took chances on her music,” Dupri said of the progression from her R. Kelly-produced debut to the Timbaland beats on her second album. “Just the softness of how she sang over them hard-ass beats, it was something different.”
Aaliyah’s unique sound and willingness to experiment won her fans outside the R&B and hip-hop genres. Korn leader Jonathan Davis penned several songs for a vampire rock band in “Queen of the Damned” and planned to remix one of them with Aaliyah and Timbaland. He said Aaliyah was unafraid to bring a hint of darkness to mainstream radio’s otherwise sunny vistas.
“She does really great, different stuff that’s dark,” he said Monday. “She skirts the goth edge. There’s something cool and mysterious about her. I dug that. Just a dark little girl singing some cool-ass sh–.”
Aaliyah wasn’t simply a pop star who took up acting as a lark. She brought her unconventional approach to her movie roles, too. Michael Rymer, who directed Aaliyah in the title role of “Queen of the Damned,” said she brought a unique approach to the part of 5,000-year-old Akasha, transforming the character into something complex and terrifying.
“Aaliyah and I devised a plan in which she would be the oldest, most powerful creature in the world, but she would play it like a child, like a kitten playing with a mouse,” Rymer said. “It could have been a complete joke and come off in an embarrassing way. We both knew we were taking a huge risk and that if we pulled it off, it would be much more exciting than if we approached it more conventionally. She was a young queen.”
For “Matrix” producer Joel Silver, who also cast Aaliyah in “Romeo Must Die,” her skill and talent were crystallized in a scene where she talks to Jet Li’s character about the death of her character’s brother. She had to break down in tears but refused to resort to such tricks as blowing menthol up her nose or putting fake tears on her cheeks.
“Aaliyah didn’t want to do that. She reached down somewhere and found this place where she could be this incredible actress,” Silver said, beginning to cry himself. “She was a fantastic girl.”
Filmmakers and musicians alike applauded Aaliyah’s professionalism. Rymer said she was a dream to work with, never becoming impatient even while suffering through hours of makeup and waiting in the cold to film a scene. Treach said he never heard a negative word about her from anyone.
“You hear certain things through the industry about who you can work with and who you can’t,” he said. “You heard nothing but good stuff about Aaliyah.”
Beyond her musical vision and professionalism, Aaliyah possessed an undeniable star quality, a magnetism and aura that separate the great from the merely good.
“Some stars have a unique way of capturing their audience without saying a word,” Williams said. “That comes from charisma, it comes from charm. A lot of it comes from someplace else. I can’t really define it, but I’m always able to recognize it. She had that ’magic,’ for lack of a better word.”