The Unknowable Aaliyah

Twenty-two years after her debut single, a singular legacy shines on

In Aaliyah’s first-ever interview with MTV, she never takes off her sunglasses. She is a teenager — a young one at that; she's just 15. In this footage, she comes across as so many things at once. Adult and opaque. Honest and reticent. Kind and aloof. Young. She seems to be wisely rationing her smile, using it carefully, revealing only as much as she needs to in order to not completely stonewall the interviewer.

By that time, Aaliyah had already grown accustomed to stage lights shining in her face. She grew up in a musical family (Gladys Knight was married to her uncle), and she was singing at weddings by the time she was 8, performing on Star Search by the time she was 10, entertaining in Vegas by the time she was 11. Maybe such proximity to the industry gave her a certain wisdom about how shady it could be, and how closely you needed to hold yourself in order to escape the ceaseless appetite it carries for the souls of its participants.

Her first single, “Back and Forth,” was released 22 years ago this week, on May 9, 1994. It’s a cliché to call a song or record groundbreaking, but "Back and Forth" was a deceptively complex musical effort that helped set the mold for a decade’s worth of R&B.

In the early '90s, the cultural gap between hip-hop and R&B was, by necessity, beginning to deteriorate. Mainstream black singers in the 1980s were relentlessly packaged in corporate pastels, as a kind of urban yacht rock that made everyone, no matter the depth of their talent or soul, look like kindly coworkers from the HR department who just happened to sing with their church choirs on the weekend. Over on the other side of the dial, rap was slowly raising a middle finger to these lingering vestiges of respectability politics. Run-D.M.C. rocked an unabashedly urban leather aesthetic. Public Enemy trolled white comfort by rushing stages with a full-on black paramilitary unit glowering from behind dark sunglasses. N.W.A literally named themselves after America’s greatest fear, and Bad Boy Entertainment added an eerie, celebratory platinum bling to the bloodlust and nihilism that throbbed underneath cities at the height of the crack epidemic.

Starting with new jack swing, R&B had to get onboard. Audiences could no longer reconcile the pure human realities of early '90s hip-hop with a bunch of pastel sweaters and Jheri-curl 'fros.

Aaliyah came along with "Back and Forth," and a prayer was answered. The track, penned by R. Kelly, possessed an insistent mid-tempo groove that defied you to listen to it without getting swept up in the kind of eyes-closed, hand up, deep head nodding that great jams inspire. (It's one of the first songs to crack the code on 92 bpm as a universally undeniable tempo.) Maybe hip-hop’s main influence was that songs were beginning to feel like they were built from the beat up, rather than from the chords down. The backing track on “Back and Forth” has the markers of traditional boom-bap, with its terse snare and DJ Premier–inspired half-verse samples, and a West Coast keyboard winding its way through the chorus. But it’s the the tensions inherent in the track that elevate it beyond the generic. Aaliyah’s vocal performance, an unusually breathy lilt that is both captivating and sanguine, transforms the earthly beat into something celestial. The melody feels improvisational, like someone catching the spirit, riffing over a groove until choruses and harmonies rise suddenly to the surface, revealing the entire thing as a carefully considered work.

It was the mystery of Aaliyah that allowed the track to land so perfectly in the pocket for listeners. Visually, with baggy jeans and heavily pocketed cargo vests and hoodies, she cut traditional notions of femininity with a tomboyish edge inherited from TLC, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. But her poise as a performer, her restraint and self-possession, felt directly descended from Whitney Houston and Sade. No other singer before or since so effectively carried off her particular mix of thuggishness and regality.

We took pride in Aaliyah. She represented a beauty and power that could not be divorced from the realities of the urban lives we had been forced to live and to make our own. So much older R&B forced us to deny our experience, forever limiting it to clean love songs and crooning pleas. Aaliyah was, by contrast, contemporary and present, a clear and unassailable proof that black, as it stood in that very moment, was beautiful.

The tragic side of her story began long before the plane crash that ultimately claimed her back from us. By late 1994, rumors had surfaced of a secret marriage with R. Kelly, who was 25 at the time. By December 1995, Vibe magazine had uncovered a marriage certificate that falsely listed Aaliyah's age as 18 years old. After the story came to light, the illegal union was annulled, and Aaliyah and her family broke ties with R. Kelly and the Jive Records label that had hired him. Kelly was largely excused as having succumbed to a transgression of passion, until he went on to allegations of doing much worse. Aaliyah, scandalized, would never speak of it publicly again.

The photo on her next studio album, 1996's One in a Million, saw her defiantly staring down the camera, dressed in a power jacket and silver-rimmed glasses that once again hid her eyes from ours. The look is pissed-off and unbreakable, not unlike the aggrieved spouse of a politician caught in a sex scandal. She was 17. Aaliyah always had the gift of presenting as a woman even when she was a teenager. The curse was that she did so in a world that doesn’t know how to separate womanhood from sexuality.

We don’t know how to properly respect and care for the gifts that nature provides to us. This is how we repeatedly foment the destruction of the most talented and sensitive among us. We use them for money, leach them for fame, and leave them unsupervised in the hands of predators and monsters. Aaliyah Houghton came with an outsize ability to inspire deep passion and a solid and glorious kind of head-nodding delight. Her success was inexorably tied to her relatability, the sense that she could equally embody both the roughness and the beauty of the black experience. She made it safe for us to express all that we were, and in so doing gave us life before “gives me life” was even a thing. She wasn’t with us long enough for us to know if we could ever do the same for her.

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