Why you should care
Lifetime’s biopic is far from the best way to remember this gone-too-soon, incredible talent.
Sometimes it takes a gloriously epic, WTF moment to remind us why an artist matters. In the case of late R&B it-girl Aaliyah Haughton, the credit unanimously goes to Lifetime’s Internet-breaking biopic chronicling the drama-filled rise of the influential singer, dancer and actress. Since its Nov. 15 premiere, the thoroughly flogged (and highly rated) Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B — produced by shameless talk show gossip maven Wendy Williams — has been mocked by TV critics, hard-core fans, friends and family of the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised performer. The good news? The film has turned the spotlight back on Aaliyah’s sometimes underrated catalog.
Her tone was that of a violin … very sweet and pure.
For an act largely celebrated for her classic beauty, influential fashion statements and effortless dance moves, Aaliyah’s vocal talent is often buried beneath the shiny stuff. And nowhere else was Aaliyah’s alluring vox more evident than on the 1998 groundbreaking track “Are You That Somebody?” She “had a mysterious quality about her tone and her placement,” Adolphus “Danja Mowf” Maples tells OZY. The rapper and founder of Maples Media Group was an extended member of the legendary clique that included Aaliyah, game-changing producer Timbaland, gifted rap visionary Missy Elliott, and departed songwriter Static Major. “Aaliyah’s vocal presence was not Patti LaBelle,” he continues. “She wasn’t SANGING, as they say. But her tone was that of a violin … very sweet and pure.”
Recorded for the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, the Timbaland-conducted “Are You That Somebody?” brilliantly showcases Aaliyah at the peak of her hypnotic powers. When she announces, “Boy, I’ve been watching you like a hawk in the sky that flies, and you were my prey,” it’s no mere come-on. It’s a sultry threat. As game-changing, crossover R&B statements go (the song rocketed to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts), “Are You That Somebody?” isn’t so much left field. It’s a precursor to the minimalist, less-is-more production style that would become the go-to sound for hip-hop and pop music for years to come, and it is delightfully weird.
The percussive beat-box plays peek-a-boo, stutter stepping with the infectious energy of a boundless infant in a walker. There’s a rubbery, funk-soaked analog guitar riff that seems to be at odds with its futuristic backdrop. Aaliyah’s voice floats like an otherworldly siren. And … baby giggles? “Aaliyah said, ‘That’s so cute,’ ” recalled Timbaland of his muse’s reaction, in a self-released 2012 online interview. “We just came from doing a show. All of a sudden, last minute, ‘Can y’all do a record tonight? It’s going to be the single for Dr. Doolittle.’ It was like 4 o’clock in the morning! We had to turn that joker in … master it by 8!”
Despite its ridiculous deadline, “Are You That Somebody?” became an unavoidable anthem in the summer of ’98. The cut’s iconic video displayed a charismatic Aaliyah finally shedding her cool tomboy image, wearing a slinky dress while dancing the tango at the end of the clip. “I was able to perform on record with her,” says a proud Danja Mowf, who appeared on the standout remix for “Are You That Somebody?” But it’s the more mundane details that make him glow when looking back at Aaliyah, who was killed at age 22 in a tragic plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001. “When we would chill at the hotel or in the limo, Aaliyah carried on real people conversations,” he says. “You felt like you have known her for a long time.”