Aaliyah's 'One In a Million' Turns 20: How Her Second Album Predicted R&B's Future

AP Photo/Jim Cooper, file
Aaliyah photographed in 2001.

The first voice heard on One In a Million, the subtly groundbreaking 1996 sophomore album by R&B singer Aaliyah, belongs to Missy Elliott. “Aaliyah, Aaliyah, wake up,” says Missy, her words echoing amid bells, blippy synths, and heavy bass. “You just now entered into the next level. The new world of funk.”

Teasing and playful, Missy is less alarm clock than inter-dimensional gatekeeper -- Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit in Adidas and hoop earrings. Alongside songwriting and production partner Timbaland, Missy wakes Aaliyah from one dream and sends her into another. It’s one where hip-hop gets seduced by R&B, and dives into a satin sea of sheets without removing its Tims.

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As One In a Million celebrates its 20th anniversary -- it arrived on August 27, 1996 -- that dream is the reality for much of pop music. Every rapper is a singer (and vice-versa), and beats are made to hypnotize, not hype you up. The “new world of funk” lives on without its queen, who died in an August 2001 plane crash at the age of 22.

Going into One In a Million, Aaliyah hardly seemed destined for the crown. Although she’d scored two top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 with her 1994 debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, neither the pleasantly bumping “Back & Forth” nor the forgettable ballad “At Your Best (You Are Love)” sounded especially alien on pop radio. Plus, Aaliyah had recently split from producer and mentor R. Kelly, to whom she was briefly married. Details of their illegal union remain sketchy, but Aaliyah was just 15 at the time, and according to her cousin Jomo Hankerson, an exec at Blackground Records, the industry “villainized” the singer for her affair.

“That’s what made the transition to the second album difficult,” Hankerson said in a 2014 radio interview. “We were coming off of a multi-platinum debut album and except for a couple of relationships with Jermaine Dupri and Puffy, it was hard for us to get producers on the album.”

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Sean “Puffy” Combs doesn’t show up on One In a Million, and Dupri only grabs writing and production credit on one song, the sinewy yet skippable G-funk slow jam “I Gotcha Back.” The stars of the show are Missy and Timbaland, who collaborated on about half the tracks and gave the LP its future-freaky sonic palette. While Missy and Tim became two of the most reliable hip-hop and R&B hitmakers of the next decade, they were relative unknowns at the time. Aaliyah took a risk working with the duo -- possibly because plans to work with Puffy fell through, and possibly because she heard something in Timbaland’s fidgety beats and Missy’s writing that she knew would complement her singing.

Either way, One In a Million is the right voice with the right music. After the “Beats 4 Da Streets” intro, Aaliyah melts the bedroom walls with track two, “Hot Like Fire,” a panting, minimalist controlled-blaze baby-maker on which the 17-year-old singer sounds 100 percent in control. She’s cooler and more laid back on the album’s title track, and on the lead single, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” she rebuffs a philandering dude with an icy tsk-tsk, resisting the urge to make it a proto ”No Scrubs” anthem.

Throughout One In a Million, Aaliyah remains every bit as subtle and assured. In a press release accompanying the album, she admitted to being “a little anxious” about jumping from Jive to Atlantic and changing up her sound, but that uncertainty never filters into the music. She holds her own against guest rappers Treach and Slick Rick, plays reassuring lover on “Giving You More” and “Never Givin’ Up,” and only really succumbs to heartbreak on “The One I Give My Heart To,” a thoroughly out-of-place Diane Warren ballad that reached No. 9 on the Hot 100, becoming the disc’s highest-charting single.

Far better is Missy and Tim’s “4 Page Letter,” a stunning example of Aaliyah projecting maturity beyond her years. Even in 1996, before email was really a thing, most people didn’t write letters. A typical teenager might pass a note in study hall, but Aaliyah treats Timbaland’s tissuey beat like fine stationery and tells her crush to keep an eye out for the mailman. Aaliyah being Aaliyah, she never actually tells us what’s in the letter.

Today’s artists aren’t so coy. Aaliyah’s biggest 21st century cheerleader, Drake, is far less enigmatic. In 2012, he jumped on “Enough Said,” an unreleased Aaliyah track whose title is funny, given his status as king of the oversharers. Drake was reportedly slated to follow that posthumous collabo with an entire album, but even in the wake of The xx covering “Hot Like Fire” and artists ranging from Yeasayer to Adele singing Aaliyah’s praises -- revealing her to be one of the most secretly influential artists of the ‘90s -- the public cried foul, and the idea got scrapped.

Drizzy’s OVO crew members DVSN and PARTYNEXTDOOR have both released “One In a Million” remixes, and while they keep lower public profiles than their boss, their music is filled with explicit references to sex and drugs that do little to create mystery. Same goes for The Weeknd, another Aaliyah disciple who finds in the late singer’s spacious ‘90s aesthetic ample room to insert gory details about nocturnal adventures. FKA Twigs does a more abstract, artful, altogether chilling version of the same thing.

Maybe Aaliyah would’ve been into the darkly sexy sounds of new-school R&B. Her last film was the vampire flick Queen of the Damned, shot amid sessions for her mostly Tim- and Missy-free self-titled third album. And she was a big Nine Inch Nails fan who once tried to work with Trent Reznor. It’s fun to dream of where she might have taken her music next. One In a Million makes it easy.