Aaliyah's 'One in a Million' Invented the Sound of the Future
It's the sound of three of pop's biggest innovators—Aaliyah, Timbaland, and Missy Elliott—bringing funk forward, but you can't stream it online.
Back in the dark ages of music on physical media, albums that were "out of print" were inaccessible and hard to find. Now, with wide swathes of popular music history readily available on major streaming services, the albums that aren't a click away can feel increasingly distant. In The Unstreamables, Noisey takes a look back at the blockbusters, intriguing footnotes, and cult classics that you might have to try a little harder to find.
I started high school in the fall of 1996, and one thing that was changed from middle school was that my new bus driver let us listen to the radio. Seated near the back of the bus, I didn't hear much of the local R&B station playing distantly from the front. But there were a couple songs that cut through all the background noise: One had an insistent ticking hi-hat pattern, and another had a weird loping bassline that sounded like someone saying "bleh, bleh, bleh" over and over.
After a few weeks of hearing those sounds every day, I realized that those songs were Aaliyah's "One In A Million" and Ginuwine's "Pony," respectively. But it was maybe another year or two before I realized that both beats were created by the same producer, Timbaland, and that he'd just begun one of the most transformative runs in pop chart history.
Aaliyah's One In A Million was released in August 1996, beating Ginuwine…The Bachelor to stores by a few weeks to become the first album primarily produced by Tim "Timbaland" Mosley. A lot was riding on Aaliyah's second album. Her first, 1994's Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, was a joint venture between Aaliyah's uncle Barry Hankerson's upstart label, Blackground Records, and her writer/producer R. Kelly's label Jive Records. The album was a huge success, going double platinum. But after controversy exploded around the 15-year-old Aaliyah's rumored marriage to the much older Kelly, things got weird. She left Jive, who stuck with Kelly, and Blackground struck a new distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Hankerson gained full control of Aaliyah's master recordings under the Atlantic deal, and he's reportedly withheld her second and third albums from streaming services. Age, under the previous deal with Jive, is her only album readily available to stream.
It'd be hard for any artist to launch a career with a superstar like R. Kelly writing their songs and then start fresh with an unproven new team. But Aaliyah was fortunate to wind up with Timbaland and songwriter Missy Elliott, both of whom had just spent years in an ultimately fruitless deal with Jodeci's Devante Swing. During those years, Timbo co-produced a Jodeci track and "No More Pain" from 2Pac's All Eyez On Me. But his distinctive sound had largely been unheard by the masses when the slithering bassline of "If Your Girl Only Knew" began creeping across the airwaves in summer 1996.
The context in which Aaliyah sounded disarmingly grown up and self-assured singing R. Kelly's songs at 15 has unseemly connotations in retrospect. But singing Missy Elliott's sassy, streetwise lyrics with effortless charisma at 17 remains the moment when Aaliyah grew into greatness and found the defining sound of her woefully short career.
One In A Million opens with Missy Elliott's voice cutting through a fog of digital noise and ominous bells, calling Aaliyah's name, and then saying "you've just now entered into the next level, the new world of funk" as Timbaland's now signature drums dance across the track. This isn't exactly an unusual thing to hear on a rap or R&B album from 1996. Since the late 80s, producers had been busily mining the James Brown and Parliament discographies for the funkiest breaks, and as late as 1994, every third rap album seemed to have a title like "Funkdafied" or "Guerilla Funk." But in a rare moment of hype that proved to be entirely accurate, Timbo and Missy did indeed introduce a new world of funk on One In A Million, with ingeniously intricate programmed drums that would help usher out the era of the breakbeat.
"One In A Million" and "4 Page Letter" are among the major hits that never appeared on the Hot 100 due to a technicality.
Timbaland only produced half the songs on One In A Million, and it's sometimes jarring how backward-looking the rest of the album is compared to his twitchy future funk. Age's biggest hit was a gorgeous cover of the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love," and One In A Million consciously returns to the Isleys for "Choosey Lover (Old School/New School)," which mimics the 1983 original faithfully for the first four minutes before departing into a more modern extended outro. This is followed by a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up" featuring a verse from Slick Rick. This all happens just a few minutes after "One In A Million" completely reinvented the sound of R&B with a slow, ethereal club ballad with hyperactive doubletime drum fills.
And even when One In A Million is firmly rooted in the 90s, it can sound a little dated. "A Girl Like You" has a standard 90s boom bap beat produced by Kay Gee of Naughty By Nature, and features a verse from Treach. The album's final single was "The One I Gave My Heart To," an unabashedly schmaltzy Diane Warren ballad. It was also the album's highest charting single, although perhaps only due to a technicality—for a time in the 90s, Billboard didn't allow songs not released as physical singles to chart on the Hot 100. "One In A Million" and "4 Page Letter" are among the major hits that never appeared on the chart due to this rule.
Still, One In A Million an exhilarating album, from the sleek "Hot Like Fire" (a completely different Timbaland beat from the other, more jeep-friendly beat he made for the song's 1997 single release) to the triplet crazy "Heartbroken." "Never Coming Back" features Timbaland aping the sound of a live band vamping on a laid back groove, while Aaliyah does a call-and-response harmony routine with an imaginary concert audience over canned crowd noise. It's a little hokey, but a fun little minor experiment amongst a set of massively successful experiments.
Over the next five years, Aaliyah would shift her focus to acting, reuniting with Timbaland periodically to shake the earth again with the soundtrack singles "Are You That Somebody?" and "Try Again." When Aaliyah released her self-titled third album in 2001, Timbaland was so high in demand that he only dropped in for three tracks. But by then his sound was so influential that the other producers on the album gave most of the other tracks a distinct post-Timbaland flavor. And of course, the singer's tragic death mere weeks after the album's release deprived us of hearing what else they'd cook up together. Both of Aaliyah's currently unavailable later albums are jewels of modern R&B, sampled and imitated as much now as ever before. They're not a click away, but they won't be forgotten.
Al Shipley is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.