Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage
For The Record: How Aaliyah Redefined Her Sound And Herself On 'One In A Million'
Illuminated by the pale white light of a New York City subway platform, Aaliyah stares into the frame on the cover of her album, One in a Million. Her eyes hidden behind a pair of silver-frame sunglasses. Her slim figure cloaked in a black jumpsuit. Her pout brushed in a shade of brick-red lipstick. Her countenance unfalteringly confident as she faced her new era.
In the two years between the release of her multiplatinum debut album Age Ain't Nothing But a Number in 1994 and her follow-up, One in a Million, on August 27, 1996, Aaliyah had established herself as a budding musical talent. But in the fallout of her marriage scandal with R. Kelly and subsequent professional split from the signer, who wrote and produced the majority of Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, Aaliyah and her team faced the taxing task of finding a new team of producers equipped to push her sound forward.
Aaliyah recorded One in a Million while finishing her studies at Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts, from which she graduated in 1997. She had also ended her contract with Jive Records, and then signed a joint deal with Atlantic Records and her uncle Barry Hankerson's Blackground Records. She was 16 when she began recording the album, having turned 17 when it dropped, a pivotal time in her personal life journey. She perfectly captured the transition in her iconic One in a Million era.
"I faced the adversity, I could've broken down, I could've gone and hid in the closet and said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore.' But I love singing, and I wasn't going to let that mess stop me," Aaliyah said in a 1996 interview with writer Michael Gonzalez, per a retrospective on her career for Wax Poetics. "I got a lot of support from my fans and that inspired me to put that behind me, be a stronger person, and put my all into making One in a Million."
Many artists Aaliyah's age may have been the product of the creative strategizing of their label—with managers, A&R teams, and other members of their crew choosing their producers, lyrics and overall sound with little to no input from the artists.
But Aaliyah challenged this expectation and misconception by taking creative control of One in a Million, making the sound on the project all her own. She led each member of her production and writing team to craft a One in a Million era with a variety of production styles.
"She definitely had an executive producer's ear. She had a great sense of what was right for herself, and you have to give her a lot of credit for steering those sessions to a place that obviously created meaningful hit records," Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, told Vibe.com.
"She obviously made One in a Million, an album that was very, very much ahead of the curve and didn't sound like anything that had come before it," he added.
To aid in uncovering Aaliyah's new, "ahead of the curve" sound, Craig King and Vincent Herbert became the earliest producers to lay the musical groundwork of One in a Million, which Aaliyah first started recording in 1995.
"We caught [Aaliyah] at her probably second-most vulnerable stage in her career. We caught her at her sophomore jinx and when people were like, 'This will never work without R. Kelly because he put this signature sound on you,'" King told GRAMMY.com about working on One in a Million. "She was really trying to redefine all of that narrative, and we weren't interested in replicating what he was doing. We wanted to bring our own sound into the game, too."
Recording out of the famed Vanguard Studios in Aaliyah's hometown of Detroit, Michigan, King and Herbert produced a total of eight tracks for the project over three months, though only four made the final cut for the album. The album's production team also included contributors Jermaine Dupri, Darryl Simmons, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and others, as well as writers Diane Warren, Monica Bell, Japhe Tejeda, and more.
With a team of production and songwriting heavy hitters in Aaliyah's corner, One in a Million began to take shape. The album would become a whole embodiment of Aaliyah's sound, building the R&B-rooted stylings that made her debut album a success into genre-blending productions while also giving listeners a fuller look into sonic complexity of the singer as an artist.
The Timbaland-produced lead single "If Your Girl Only Knew" bumps along, with its beat pulling from pop and funk inspirations, as Aaliyah calls out a flirtatious guy who's in a relationship. "4 Page Letter" and the album's title track slink along with multilayered productions packed with hi-hats, clicks, triple-beats, strings, and stacked harmonies, all the while reimagining the essential production elements of a love ballad. "Got's to Give It Up" and "Choosey Lover" put a modern spin on '70s throwback jams, while "A Girl Like You" samples "Summer Madness" by Kool & the Gang.
"I love all kinds of music, and I want to be known as the kind of singer that can do all of that. So, that's why I wanted the different varieties on the album to showcase that—showcase each part of my personality," Aaliyah said in an interview with the Associated Press during her press run for the project. "Definitely I love the soul, the hip-hop, the R&B. I love it all. But I do want people to see me as the type of artist that can sing any kind of music."
Along with their lyrical content and innovative productions, the album's tracks, like the paired-down, Warren-written "The One I Gave My Heart To" and the Herber- and King-produced "Never Givin' Up," also highlighted Aaliyah's vocal abilities, expanding the strength of her falsetto and upper register while allowing her the full space to showcase other elements of her vocal range and stylings.
"I remember being in the studio when she was singing ['The One I Gave My Heart To'] and hitting those notes and it was just beautiful," Warren told Vibe.com. "It just showed another side to her. The octave goes up in the end and some of that was what I'd written into the song, but she took it somewhere else. She not only rose to it, she went beyond it. She nailed that song and it was amazing what she did. It's still one of my favorite records."
Speaking on "Never Givin' Up," King said he was completely enamored with her interpretation of the track when they recorded it.
"The vocal arrangement. Every single time we layered a vocal, she was just so on point," King said. "She just superseded all my expectations. I was very, very impressed with her style there."
"This album, it shows the growth of the past two years. I'm 17 now. So, I've grown in a lot of ways. And this album, I think it shows a lot of my vocal range," Aaliyah told the AP while speaking on developing her sound for the project. "I took a lot of risks on this album. I tried different things. And that's the main change from the two albums."
Aaliyah's shift in her sound resulted in some standout commercial wins. There were a staggering six singles released from One in a Million: "If Your Girl Only Knew," "One in a Million," "Got to Give It Up," "4 Page Letter," "Hot Like Fire," and "The One I Gave My Heart To." The latter eventually peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it the highest-charting single from the album. The remaining tracks saw varying degrees of success in both the U.S. and internationally — with "If Your Girl Only Knew" topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and "One in a Million" topping the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.
While her fashion remained a key piece of her overall creative narrative as an artist throughout her career, Aaliyah's style transcended in the One in a Million era. She elevated her aesthetic with the assistance of her stylist and costume designer Derek Lee. As his first project with her, Lee styled Aaliyah's "One In A Million" music video after the two had a chance encounter in Santa Monica, California, just days before shooting the video in Los Angeles.
"[Aaliyah's] look was already established in a certain sense, but I wanted to start a progression. Prior to One In A Million, [her look] was definitely younger, her look was her age. Now, when we get to One in a Million, it's still her age, but it shows a little bit more of a maturity as well," Lee told GRAMMY.com.
Much like her album cover shoot, which featured moody shades of black, concrete gray, merlot, and the grey-green paint of the subway platform, Aaliyah's One in a Million era was often framed around a dark styling narrative that reflected her favorite colors and fabrics, including her affection for leather pieces.
"It was easy to make black stuff look cool and hard and sexy at the same time. One of her favorite colors was black. She liked it. She felt comfortable in it. It was easy to feel," Lee said. "One thing with Aaliyah is that her biggest accessory was her swag. She sold confidence, and the color black just enhanced it."
Aaliyah opted for minimal outfit combos consisting of one to three pieces that were fuseless and easy and in no way distracted from her presence on stage or on camera: See her oversized leather-coat-and-pants combo she wore during an appearance on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," her looks on the her "One in a Million" and "4 Page Letter" music video, and the metallic boiler suit Lee hand-painted and airbrushed for her performance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
"She was so sweet and just regular, when you're sitting there with her and kicking it with her. But soon as she gets on stage, she's this persona, which is her, honestly. She turns up that swag so much that you don't really want anything to distract from it because it shined so bright," Lee said of Aaliyah's looks, which regularly played with proportions by pairing oversized pants with mid-drift-baring T-shirts, bra tops and crop tops. "That was always on purpose. Even though she was dressed cool, it wasn't so over the top where you weren't still paying attention to what she was doing."
Much like she held creative control over the album's sound, Aaliyah exercised full agency over her One in a Million style narrative. She refused to buckle to any perceived pressure regarding the sexed-up styling arcs often employed by labels, stylists and other industry entities looking to rebrand a late-teen music artist approaching young adulthood. She instead chose to let her style reflect her authentic self, offering an example for her younger listeners that even in their own lives, they didn't have to rush to meet any standard or expectation that misaligned with what they wanted to portray.
"When she was ready for something, she was ready for something and was sure. If she wasn't mentally ready for something, then we wouldn't do it. Because she never wanted to look like she was dressed by somebody. I never want anyone I dress to look like they're dressed by anybody," Lee said. "She trusted me when she saw that I understood that. It was almost an unspoken agreement between me, her and her mom.
"I was always protective of her and never wanted her to sexualize herself in a certain way and dress in a certain way until she was ready … She never did anything before the time. She never forced it."
For 17-year-old Aaliyah, One in a Million became a career-defining project that silenced any lingering questions regarding her industry viability and influence. It also allowed her to grow as an artistic leader as she voiced her expectations for the project to her roster of contributors, working with them to ideate and execute the album's musical and visual concepts.
"[Aaliyah] never really chased after anybody else's style or chased what was going on at the moment," Lee said. "She knew her lane, wanted people around her that understood that lane, and wanted those people to accentuate her in that lane and leave the rest up to her … Her leadership was consistent. She was someone that had conviction and had a vision. I thank God for that because it made my job a lot easier knowing someone's vision, instead of having to guess what their vision was."
"I hope [listeners] appreciate the songbird that she is, the writer that she is, the singer that she is, and the vocal choices that she's made in this project," album producer King added. "I hope people really embrace and lean into her vocal abilities on this record. It really has set a precedent for a lot of singers in the game."
Released in the U.S. 25 years ago to the day, One in a Million continues its legacy in 2021. This month (Aug. 20), the album was released on streaming services after being largely absent on the digital market for over a decade, allowing music fans worldwide easier access to the album that has served as an inspiration for countless artists in the decades since its release. The rerelease comes days before the 20th anniversary of Aaliyah's death and the 25th anniversary of One in a Million.
But beyond its commercial impact and influence on pop culture, One in a Million, and its true wonder, will forever rest in what the album represented for Aaliyah personally as she stepped into her late teens and flexed her creative voice with reposeful fervor and unwavering certainty.
One in a Million marked Aaliyah's new beginning. And 25 years later, the project remains a symbol of her self-awareness and artistic sureness as she plotted the next steps in her journey from breakout star to an established music industry force who's confident in her sound, her self-image, and the creative story she wanted to tell.