Aaliyah’s ‘One In A Million’ Turns 20: Backtracking

At 15 years old, Detroit native Aaliyah shook up the R&B scene in 1994 with her first album, the aptly titled Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. A year removed from its success, the Detroit-bred ingenue joined creative forces with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, both of whom were relative unknowns at the time. The result was One In A Million, an album whose electro-R&B vibe helped define the sound of 1996 and still feels vital to the sonic fabric of 2016. In honor of its 20th anniversary on August 27, we’re taking a look back at the record that solidified Aaliyah as one of the more innovative forces in R&B.

Off-kilter concussive rhythms, frantic melodies, skittering drums and even an adult contemporary vibe (courtesy of songwriter Diane Warren) intertwine throughout One In A Million‘s 17 tracks. Unlike Brandy and Monica, two of her musical peers at the time, Aaliyah took a more futuristic approach to R&B music. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the album’s first two singles, “If Your Girl Only Knew” and the title track. The latter saw Aaliyah owning her crown as R&B’s most experimental torchbearer. With production assistance from Missy and Tim, the singer’s tranquil vocals glide over a frantic drum beat as she sings of pleasant vibes with an unnamed lover. (“Your love is a one in a million, it goes on and on and on you give me a really good feelin’ all day long”.)

Adept at the “street but sweet” persona so many R&B girls are still aiming for today, the laid-back approach she displayed on these songs was a pleasant reprieve from the dramatic heartbreak and urgent vocal delivery that dominated the genre during the ’90s. Still, many of the lyrical themes here deal with matters of the heart: teenage love, lust, deceit. This was no surprise, considering Aaliyah was only 17 years old at the time.

Like her idol Janet Jackson, Aaliyah didn’t need to belt out sweeping vocals to get her point across. In that regard, it made her adaptable to the ever changing, genre-defying sounds that would define her discography, and while One In A Million was only the second step in her musical evolution, it proved to be a big leap away from the new jack swing sound pulsing through her first album.

However, she didn’t exclusively utilize her vocals for cooing and soft whispers. On “The One I Gave My Heart To,” the album’s final single, the teenager confirmed what others close to her already knew: she was capable of delivering a vocal performance that would make the era’s dominating divas Whitney Houston and Celine Dion proud.

Aside from its clever combination of electronica and R&B, One In A Million also heralded the arrival of Aaliyah The Music Video Star. Similar to Madonna and Janet, Aaliyah’s brand of masculine appeal laced with feminine sensuality came to life in a deluge of MTV visiuals that played out like sci-fi epics. A quick glance at the music video for “One In A Million” conjures reminders of futuristic films Aliens, The Fifth Element and The Matrix. On the flip side, the accompanying clip for fan-favorite single “4 Page Letter” bears resemblances to island survival fiction like Lord Of The Flies and Lost.

One In A Million eventually sold more than a million worldwide — including two million copies stateside — and frequently pops up on ’90s best-of lists. It’s clear the album’s deft combination of electronic and R&B set a precedent for the music of this decade, sitting comfortably on a shelf alongside recent releases from Kelela, FKA twigs and Nao (just pretend people still put physical copies on shelves). The foresight and risk-taking that Aaliyah showcased in 1996 would become fully realized five years later on her eponymous third (and final) album. And that’s why, 15 years after her passing, we still remain curious about how Aaliyah Dana Haughton would’ve continued to push pop music forward.