I remember exactly where I was when I was hit with the news on Aug. 25, 2001, that singer Aaliyah had been killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas. I was sitting on my couch in my apartment in Hyattsville, Md. It was a Saturday morning and I turned my television to MTV where Kurt Loder was sharing the devastating news to the world. I was floored....destroyed. Not Baby Girl. Not Aaliyah. It just didn’t feel...right. Some deaths you understand; this one felt like only God could explain. She was five months older than me, so we were both 22 years old, too young to die. While the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. rocked the hip-hop world to its core, there’s something altogether different about losing a young starlet in a tragic accident. Especially one that was ours.
She had so much life ahead of her it seemed. She’d gotten past that situation triumphantly and released a sophomore album, she was on the verge of her third album and had been in movies, fashion ads, etc. She was good. And again, she was ours. Like, Aaliyah was part of my life like so many other artists. Her career and music felt oddly personal. Which is why I was both unsurprised but also taken aback by the fact that at midnight on Aug. 20, when I fired up Spotify to see if Aaliyah’s One in a Million album was available, and it was (albeit controversially), I got emotional.
I listened to the album for the first time in what feels like forever last night and it was like I was hearing her voice again for the first time. Like most folks, I can’t really listen to Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number; it feels too dirty. My physical CD copies of One in a Million and Aaliyah are packed away in storage with thousands of other CDs I own; streaming means the CDs just take up precious space. Because of that, I haven’t heard One in a Million in probably over a decade. YouTube doesn’t hit sonically right and One in a Million is an album that needs the right space to be heard. Like some real house speakers or in my car. Why? Because One in a Million changed the game.
Because Timbaland and Missy are so vital to the major hits from One in a Million, it’s almost easy to forget that they didn’t produce every song. I’d entirely forgotten that Jermaine Dupri did a song and that Rodney Jerkins contributed a single. Or that Treach was on the album on a KayGee-produced record that sounds appropriately mid-’90s. But the crown jewels are the singles that everybody knows and loves when thinking about the album: “One in a Million,” “4-Page Letter,” “Hot Like Fire,” and “If Your Girl Only Knew,” the lead single.
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But man, the song “One in a Million,” the third song on the album changed everything. For starters, in 1996, when the album dropped, I was 17 years old and I can remember hearing it for the first time—no cap, as the kids say—and wondering what in THE hell I was listening to. The odd drum patterns—a Timbaland staple—open the record and it fucking KNOCKS. That bass kick was a monster and still is. When I listened to the record last night, I closed my eyes and drifted back to the homie’s car where his sound system was worth more than the car and remember how hard that song sounded. If you had a dope sound system you knocked “One in a Million.” It hit different. It felt different. You listened to it and wondered what in the hell Timbaland was thinking when he made the song, but how perfect Aaliyah’s voice sounded singing Missy’s lyrics. It just worked.
And music was different after it. 1996 was a busy year for hip hop, especially. The Fugees’ The Score was selling out like crazy and Lauryn Hill was the next big thing. In order to cut through the landscape of so many seminal albums—seriously, 1996 was an INSANE year for hip-hop—especially of the hip-hop/R&B variety that Aaliyah dabbled in, she needed something special and that’s what Timbaland and Missy brought to the table. Each of the records they contributed knock like shit and sound so different to the musical landscape that you couldn’t help but be inspired and curious what else they might do. In 2021, Timbaland and Missy’s musical legacy is set in stone; in 1996 I’d never heard anything like that but I knew I loved it and wanted to hear more. Thankfully, they obliged and when Missy dropped Supa Dupa Fly in the summer of 1997 we all just kind of knew they were here for the long haul. And everybody had to find new ways to be innovative to keep up.
It can be hard to describe the feeling you get from music. Sometimes it just gets inside you. There are songs in my life that impacted me so deeply that I can remember exactly where I was when I heard them. Outkast, in particular has that effect on me. I vividly remember where I was the first time I heard “Elevators (Me & U)“ from 1996's ATLiens (which coincidentally released the same day as One in a Million—August 27, 1996) and “Skew It On the Bar-B” from 1998's Aquemini. “One in a Million” is another of those records (and albums) because as a music head, and somebody who genuinely loved new and innovative sounds, its chock full of both. It took me right back to 1996, a time before we knew what was possible with musical innovation and before we realized just how far hip hop could take it.
One in a Million is one of the albums I’ve been waiting to hit streaming because I remember how much I loved it and realize how many children it birthed that are running around today. As it turns out, in its time “One in a Million” was somewhat of a slow burn; I’m guessing radio and music at the time didn’t know what to do with this sound as it was unique and brand new. When I listened for the first time in a long time, I got emotional. I couldn’t help it. I felt 17 again, but with a knowledge of what was to come for Aaliyah and for music and got sad. I realized that now, hopefully, an entirely new generation of folks might be able to experience what I heard when I was a teenager and that gave me hope. And I realized, with all of the knowledge I have gained since it released and since Aaliyah passed, just how valuable she was as an artist in such a little time, similar to Tupac and Biggie.
I miss Aaliyah and re-listening to One in a Million crystallized that. There are a few artists I genuinely miss, like Donny Hathaway and Phyllis Hyman. Because so much of Aaliyah’s music—the stuff that really changed the game—has been unavailable for so long I don’t think I remembered how much it mattered. Now that it’s all coming back, I get it. And I’m sad for what we didn’t get while being appreciative of what we did. I’m sure that now that I can, I will listen to this album over and over, probably even more so now that I’ve had to wait so long to do so. But that’s okay; the highs are even higher than I remember. It’s possible I’m remembering her more fondly than I did in 2001. Maybe the missing has strengthened my memory of how I felt. Either way, that’s okay. That’s what music can do for you and that’s what artists you felt a personal connection with can do.
Aaliyah was one in a million. And she deserves all of her flowers.