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Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born January 16, 1979, in Brooklyn, and named after a Swahili word meaning "most exalted one." Her uncle, Barry Hankerson, was a manager and entertainment lawyer who was married to Gladys Knight for a time, and her mother, also a singer, enrolled Aaliyah in voice lessons before she'd even started school. Still very young, she moved with her family to Detroit, where she sang in several school plays. At age nine, she successfully auditioned for the TV show Star Search, where she performed "My Funny Valentine." Two years later, thanks to her uncle Hankerson's connections, she spent five nights in Las Vegas performing as part of Gladys Knight's revue. In addition to his niece, Hankerson was also managing the then-emergent R. Kelly, and introduced the two in 1992. Kelly soon began writing and producing songs for Aaliyah.
Hankerson set up a label, Blackground Records, and secured a distribution deal for Aaliyah with Jive Records. Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, Aaliyah's debut album, was released in May 1994 and quickly became a platinum-selling hit on the strength of two smash singles, "Back & Forth" and "At Your Best (You Are Love)" (the latter an Isley Brothers cover). Both songs hit the pop Top Ten and went gold, and "Back & Forth" went all the way to number one on the R&B/hip-hop chart, while "At Your Best" fell one spot short. Aaliyah and R. Kelly secretly wed that August. Within six months, the marriage was annulled following the objection of Aaliyah's parents. The marriage certificate stated that Aaliyah was 18, three years older than her actual age.
In August 1996, Aaliyah released her Atlantic-distributed second album, One in a Million, which signaled a newly emerging maturity. She worked with several different producers, most notably Timbaland, who co-wrote several tracks with his songwriting partner, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (soon to become a solo star in her own right). Several of these -- "If Your Girl Only Knew," "One in a Million," "4 Page Letter" -- became hits, with "If Your Girl Only Knew" going all the way to the top of the R&B/hip-hop chart. The Diane Warren-penned ballad "The One I Gave My Heart To" was also a Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hit, and One in a Million wound up going double platinum. In the meantime, Aaliyah graduated from high school (in 1997) and contributed several songs to film soundtracks. "Journey to the Past," from Anastasia, was nominated for an Oscar, and in early 1998 she had a major hit with the Timbaland and Static Major collaboration "Are You That Somebody?," recorded for Eddie Murphy's Dr. Dolittle (in which she also made a cameo appearance). Aaliyah's third R&B/hip-hop number one, "Are You That Somebody?" also earned her a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Aaliyah took her time recording a follow-up, and put the process on hold to start an acting career. She co-starred with martial-arts master Jet Li and rapper DMX in the 2000 Shakespeare adaptation Romeo Must Die, and her accompanying soundtrack single, "Try Again" -- also produced by Timbaland and Static Major -- became her first number one pop hit and second Grammy-nominated recording. Aaliyah subsequently completed filming on the Anne Rice vampire flick Queen of the Damned, playing the title role as a vampire queen, and was cast in a prominent role in the two sequels to The Matrix. Plus, she finally finished her long-awaited third album, with Timbaland again handling some of the most prominent tracks. Released in July 2001 with distribution from Virgin, Aaliyah received excellent reviews and entered the Billboard 200 at number two. The first single, "We Need a Resolution," was a Top 20 R&B/hip-hop hit. For the filming of the video for another single, "Rock the Boat," Aaliyah traveled to the Bahamas. The plane that was to return her and some of her associates to the U.S. on August 25 crashed shortly after takeoff, killing the singer and eight others. The music world reacted with an outpouring of grief and sorrow. Aaliyah became the singer's only chart-topping album, and "Rock the Boat" went Top 20 pop. Queen of the Damned was a commercial success upon its release, topping the box office in its first week. Aaliyah and "Rock the Boat" were nominated for Grammys in the respective categories of Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
By the end of 2002, a later Aaliyah single, "More Than a Woman," was nominated for another Grammy in the R&B field, and Blackground issued I Care 4 U, a compilation that combined previously unreleased material with hits, and debuted on the Billboard 200 at number three. The title song was a Top 20 pop hit. "Miss You" topped the R&B/hip-hop chart early the next year. I Care 4 U became the singer's fourth platinum album. Another Blackground anthology, Ultimate Aaliyah, was issued independently in 2005. Sixteen years later, Aaliyah's catalog -- much of which had been unavailable on streaming services -- was reissued digitally and on physical formats. One in a Million re-entered the Billboard 200 at number ten, eight places higher than its previous peak. ~ Steve Huey & Andy Kellman