Aaliyah stepped into her own on One in a Million — and created the blueprint for modern R&B
Two years before releasing her sophomore album, 1996's One in a Million, Aaliyah was a teenage wunderkind navigating a debut project to multi-platinum success. With an homage to the Isley Brothers and remnants of New Jack Swing, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number mixed sordid concepts with tongue-in-cheek messaging. But after unfairly bearing the brunt of criticism for a relationship between her and collaborator R. Kelly — Kelly illegally married his 15-year-old protege after procuring a fake ID; the marriage was later annulled — something had to give. Aaliyah wanted to carve out her own space, so she focused on creating a singular identity, one that couldn't be attached to the past.
That attempt at individuality blooms on One in a Million, a slow-burning blockbuster that established the Superfriend collective of Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and Static Major as R&B savants and made Aaliyah the face of a new generation of effortlessly cool performers. For the album to finally find a home on streaming platforms 25 years after its August 1996 debut gives Aaliyah's diehard fans — and those wondering about her lore and legend — the chance to revisit and explore the art of a 17-year-old bursting with desire to conquer the world.
On opener "Beats 4 Da Streets," Elliot commands Aaliyah to wake up, like a Cheshire Cat inviting her and the audience to a new version of Wonderland. Sounds soon jump from elegant strings ("4 Page Letter") to sputtering staccato drums and insect noises ("One In A Million"), as Aaliyah, Timbo, and Elliott lay the blueprint for modern R&B: spacey production wrapped around alluring, occasionally beguiling vocals and lyrics.
On "If Your Girl Only Knew," the singer brings a level of delight and tension; here, infidelity comes at a far greater warning than any heartbroken ballad ever could. Later, on "4 Page Letter" — a song that would go on to dominate high-school lunchrooms and talent shows for the next decade — Aaliyah's optimistic pleas regarding newfound love feel both approachable and disarming ("Baby when I get the nerve to come to you/Promise me that you won't dis me"). When her gentle voice is placed next to classic samples — Kool & The Gang's lush "Summer Madness" for "A Girl Like You" and Minnie Ripperton's erotic run of "Inside My Love" for "Heartbroken" — or paired with featured guests Treach or Slick Rick, she still commands the room. "Got To Give It Up," featuring the "Children's Story" rapper, is a festive twist on Marvin Gaye's classic. Aaliyah molds the uptempo track to her liking, taking Gaye's flirty falsetto and making it even more playful.
Despite the distinctive approach, some aspects from the singer's debut, like covering a classic soul cut — she chose "At Your Best (You Are Love)" by the Isley Brothers on Age — persist, albeit to considerably different results. Her take on the Isley's "Choosey Lover" off Million befits a vibrant late-night drive through the city before kicking into a sultry realization of an ugly truth. The beat then morphs into a lurch as Aaliyah makes the song her own — a notable example of her chameleonic approach, and one befitting of a singer able to work in any era. "I'm an interpreter of other people's words," Aaliyah told EW in a 2000 interview. "You write a song, I'll bring it to life; you give me a script, I'll bring that to life."
When the video for the album's title track hit TV screens, several months after Million's debut, Aaliyah had officially entered a new phase of her career. The choreography, the outfits, and the swoop bang over her eye would soon become a popular fixture in beauty shops, as she took on a dark and mysterious persona from performance to music video. (The approach reminded some critics of another R&B chanteuse, Janet Jackson.) Finally, Aaliyah had shed herself completely from Kelly, evolving into an artist who could achieve success with anyone in her orbit. When "Are You That Somebody" from the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack reached No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1998, the seeds planted by One in a Million had officially blossomed. Decades later, singers such as Summer Walker, Jhené Aiko, and Ciara would eschew conventional ballads in favor of that same woozy, ethereal sound.
It would be a five-year stretch between Aaliyah's sophomore effort and her final album, the 2001 eponymous project that was released shortly before her death. At that point, she was a pop star on the verge of something greater. ("I'm attached to a remake of Sparkle that Whitney Houston's company wants to do; it's still in development," she said in the 2000 interview, a time where anything seemed possible.) But without One in a Million, Aaliyah wouldn't have ascended as quickly as she did. In one album, she changed her entire direction — and set the genre down a path it's still on today.