aaliyah-one-in-a-million aaliyah-one-in-a-million

Aaliyah Week: How 'One In A Million' Pushed The Envelope Of R&B

A few creatives behind the album speak on their contributions and how 'One in a Million' influenced R&B.

Even though Age Ain't Nothing But A Number was Aaliyah's debut album, it wasn't my first introduction to the teenaged artist. Her sophomore effort, One in a Million, was my first musical taste of her sound, and eventually led me back two years prior to her debut. But her 1996 follow up solidified the musical trajectory that Aaliyah began to trail blaze.

Partly helmed by the beats of Timbaland to the lyrical content penned by Missy Elliott on standout tracks like "4 Page Letter" to "Heartbroken," a timeless sound was created that still rings loudly today in other artist's music. The title track alone has been sampled time and time again. Although Tim and Missy took the reigns sound-wise, the album was stacked with top notch writing/producing credits including Diane Warren, Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, Craig King, Carl-So-Lowe and Daryl Simmons.

In celebration of the soundscape's 20th anniversary (Aug. 27), a few creatives behind the album speak on their contributions and how One in a Million influenced R&B.

Craig King: Produced "Got To Give It Up," "Never Givin' Up"
Tavarius Polk: Featured On "Never Givin' Up"
Daryl Simmons: Produced "The One I Gave My Heart To"
Diane Warren: Penned "The One I Gave My Heart To"
Craig Kallman: CEO Of Atlantic Records
Carl-So-Lowe: Produced "I Gotcha' Back"
Daniel Pearl: Directed "4 Page Letter" Video
Marc Baptiste: Album Cover Photographer

Pack Your Bags, You’re Headed To Detroit

Craig King: It was sickeningly cold in Detroit. I was out there for three months in a condo that they put me up in just to record non-stop. We did about eight songs and out of the eight, four made it. I was honored to work in the studio because it was the same studio that Anita Baker did the Rapture album in. Shout out to Van Guard Studios. I walked in and I remember, and keep in mind at this point I had already had a number of big, platinum albums, so I wasn’t going to be totally star struck, but I was definitely anxious because I wanted to get to work. Aaliyah had already told her management that she wanted to work with me, and I knew that she had already said that she liked the music that I had done with Monica [Payne] back in New Jersey (“Never Givin’ Up”). I was already prepared to go in and knock that out. When I walked in, her little face was so bright and just so ready and righteous, I was like, ‘This is going to be easy,’ because her spirit is just ready to go. We all sat in the room for a minute, we talked to the engineer and then I said, ‘Do you mind if I borrow you for a minute?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ We ran out of the room and went to the piano room. We sat down for a little while on the piano and talked. I said, ‘Do you mind singing “At Your Best” for me and I’m going to play the piano and I’m going to modulate, but just sing it and then we’ll just modulate it. I just want to get a sense of your range.’ I turned the lights down, she sat next to me on the stool and we started to play the song and I got chills all over my body. That’s one of my favorite Aaliyah songs. I just looked at her and I said, ‘This is going to be fun!’ and she said, ‘I know right!’ Then we got up and we walked back in the room and her mom says, ‘How’d it go?’ She said, ‘I’m ready!’ Then we started going at it, we went to work.

Tavarius Polk: At the time it was snowing and I can remember having on a black leather jacket with a Detroit, Michigan jersey and some jeans when we very first met at the studio.

King: We went to the mall one day because I told her that I didn’t know it was that cold in Detroit and I had gone out there with a pea coat. She was like ‘You have to get a bomber.’ We went to the mall, got this full-length bomber with a hood on it and she was like, ‘I’m paying for it. It’s my weather, let me pay for it.’

Missing this Angel! What's goin on with R&B people??

A photo posted by craigaking (@craigaking) on

Polk: We used to do a lot of shopping. Her favorite thing at the time that we all used to talk about was a pair of shoes that were called Mags. Those shoes were like $500 and up and a couple of us ended up buying the same exact color, same exact style. We used to joke about it and she would be like ‘Why are y’all jocking me?’ We would say whatever, we’re just buying what we think is hot, too.

King: Whenever I was told that Aaliyah was on her way to the session I got excited because I knew she was going to come in there with that humble spirit and we were really going to have a good conversation about the records. We went to the mall one night before we went to play laser tag because after sessions we would do things that were just fun. That was the advantage of doing the records in Detroit. It’s her hometown so she could take you around town. Everybody who knew her would just go crazy when she walked into a place.

Daryl Simmons: Aaliyah had a cool vibe and swag back then that other girls didn’t have. She was kind of already a star without bragging about it. She was kind of that very confident, low-key star that didn’t really have to brag about it. She carried herself in that mystique, like an old movie star with the dark glasses and whatever that don’t have to say a lot.

Working On 'One In A Million'

Diane Warren: I remember really liking Aaliyah and wanting to work with her. I like to give an artist something that they don’t usually do and that’s what my songs tend to do. It tends to show what a singer can or can’t do in certain situations. But if you can sing, these songs can show a different side to you and show your range and show that you can really sing. I think I reached out to Craig Kallman at Atlantic and said I wanted to work with her. They were down.

Craig Kallman: I met her when she was sixteen, and she immediately had this kind of electrical charm about her. She was incredibly charismatic and just the sweetest, nicest, artist but also carried herself with a real, kind of almost mysterious air about her. She had this way about her that was very intriguing and telling. Obviously, she was beautiful, and the most incredible smile, and had a great sense of style. And just carried herself extremely maturely, but she was also very cool at the same time. And just sort of dialed in to what was cutting edge from fashion to music. She just had a great aesthetic about her. At that point, you know you were in a presence of a star and she had a unique tone and vocal tone, and style, own vocal style. So it was the complete artist package. She really was somebody who had it all. You could say she had it all. And it was just very exciting to get the opportunity to sign her because artists like that are few and far between. She really had something incredibly magnetic. We were very lucky to bring her to Atlantic.

Carl-So-Lowe: Timbaland was so innovative, and to me, he set the pace for that album with “If Your Girl Only Knew” and stuff like that. I think everything else pretty much fell in place after that and just kept the album iconic. But to me, Timbaland set the pace for it.

King: We came in right as she got her budget ready to go. Vincent [Herbert] and I were the first people she called, we were the first group. That’s why we had so much freedom to go in and create a sound because we didn’t have to do a song here or there. They wanted us to go in and build a sound. We built a sound and it was a departure from R. Kelly. Then they took that and played it for Missy and Timbaland because Missy had just had a hit record with Gina Thompson and P. Diddy.

Kallman: When we signed Aaliyah, and brought her over, the conversation with her to find an innovative producer who wasn’t currently dominating the charts and we talked about how do we find her own sound that was going to define her. I really just started meeting with tons and tons of new songwriters and producers, just looking for someone creative that had their own spin on things. And one day, this young kid came in. His name was Tim Moseley. He started playing me beats and it was a really obvious meeting of, ‘This doesn’t sound like anything that’s out there and really had its own super exciting and electric, just dynamic properties.’ I called up Aaliyah, and I said, ‘You need to meet this guy. His name’s Timbaland, and he’s new. He’s out of the Devonte [Swing] camp. I said I think this could be your muse to really create something special. And they hit off. We put Missy and Timbaland and Aaliyah together, and everybody really hit it off famously. The chemistry was incredible and they just started creating and creating and it really worked. She obviously made  One in a Million, an album that was very, very much ahead of the curve and didn’t sound like anything that had come before it.

Lowe: I believe Jomo, Barry Hankerson’s son, reached out to So So Def and I think it happened from there. I knew she was coming to Atlanta, and we had nothing prepared at the time. It was her, her brother and her mother. I was kind of shy, so I went to play video games. Jermaine [Dupri] had these arcade video games of Mortal Kombat. Aaliyah walked over and said, ‘What you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m playing Mortal Kombat.’ She says, ‘I bet I could whoop your a**.’ I said, ‘I bet you can’t, not with my Sub-Zero.’ She came over and she was really good. I was surprised, but she could not beat Carl-So-Lowe with Sub-Zero. She got frustrated, hit the knob like, ‘You suck,’ [laughs]. From there, we just had a really good working relationship. I think we worked with her for three to four days because she was so focused about what she needed. Jermaine and I, we were trying to make extravagant stuff. She felt like she had gotten that from Timbaland already, and she wanted more simplified songs on the album that were really good, that had a presence on the album. We came up with “I Gotcha Back” with the interpolation of Leon Haywood’s “I Want To Do Something Freaky To You,” I believe it’s called. I replayed that, programmed the drums. Jermaine changed some of the beat and some of the snare sounds and gave it that So So Def thing. We had it, and she loved it.

Simmons: I got a last minute call from BabyFace because he lived in L.A., and I was here in Atlanta. He sent me “The One I Gave My Heart To,” and I listened to it. I loved the song. He couldn’t do the session with her, and he knew that I could do it. I was glad that he called me because I got the chance to work with her. It was very special. I never met her before that, and when she came in she was very quiet. She came with just her dad, and she was very quiet and soft spoken. I pushed the button, said, ‘Okay just warm up a little bit,’ which I do with all singers. And I’ll just sit there and look at a magazine and just kind of let them warm up with no pressure. I’ll tell them we’re not recording, but I’m always recording. She started singing and I heard this voice. I looked out in the room, and I was like, ‘Is that you?’ She goes, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I warm up.’ She was doing all this incredible opera. It was the furthest thing I would have ever thought that she could do. It just blew my mind.

Warren: It showed her vocal range, and I know a couple of people thought she wouldn’t be able to do that song. I thought, ‘No, she’ll be able to do that.’ I remember being in the studio when she was singing it and hitting those notes and it was just beautiful. It just showed another side to her. The octave goes up in the end and some of that was what I written into the song, but she took it somewhere else. She put her own thing in it and she did some ad-libs. That’s when someone is really good. I liken it to an actor, to someone writing a script and if they walk in, Meryl Streep or whoever reads their script they’re going to change a little bit of it or make it their own because naturally they’re great. It’s the same thing with a singer with a song. You’re giving it to them a certain way they’re going to take it to another level because of what they do. That’s what she did. She not only rose to it, she went beyond it. She nailed that song and it was amazing what she did. It’s still one of my favorite records.

King: I wrote “Never Givin’ Up” with a girl named Monica Payne who now manages V Bozeman. We started to work on the track, writing lyrics. She sat on the floor and the first line, “Sitting here in this empty room,’ because the room was fairly empty because I had just moved into that house. I remember thinking this is my way of giving love to the Isley Brothers, but the ‘90s version of that. When we got to the line “Angels watching over me,” it was an ode to the Clark Sisters because they had a song about something similar to that. I had to tap into that Detroit thing and I know Aaliyah is going to love it. I brought in a guy name Tavarius [Polk] who was a part of our team and he sang on it. He was like 13 or 14 years old at the time. He sang the male part and killed it. Aaliyah fell in love with his voice, too, so we kept him on it. He came in and owned it. He sounded like a grown man.

On this day we lost u!!!!! #AWMG #AALIYAH

A photo posted by TAVARIUS POLK #AWMG (@tavariuspolk) on

Polk: I was just shocked to finally get to meet someone like her. It was always neat to work with an artist or do a duet with an artist that was already on that level as she was. It was great. When I met her, we clicked instantly. The vibe was good in the studio. We became real good friends even after the fact; we would sing on each other’s voicemails at the time, we had two-way pagers. I would sing on hers and she would sing on mine as well as Missy. The initial feeling was great. I was the first male artist other than R. Kelly that she had ever did a duet with on her own project so it meant a lot. After doing that, she told me herself that I was her favorite male singer. I hold that dear to me even to this day.

King: When we record, Aaliyah always wanted to turn the lights off completely in the booth so you couldn’t see her face. That was always funny. When we got to the line “Angels watching over you,” it goes high up and her voice almost sounds like an angel. In that section when she finished it, she just ran out of the booth screaming, ‘I love it!’ Her mom jumped up and they hugged each other.

Polk: The studio session only lasted for one day because we were pretty quick with the studio work. I arranged my own verse at the time. I did get to put my own energy and input into the record as well. I coached a few of the ad-libs that her and I did together on that record. It was great working with Craig King. He’s a great writer and composer. She’s a great singer and a great artist as well as myself. We all had a great time. We went back the second day and we listened to the song as they mixed it. We sung it amongst each other in there as they were mixing it. We were very happy and excited about it.

She still got my back!!! #aaliyah

A photo posted by TAVARIUS POLK #AWMG (@tavariuspolk) on

King: I think “Never Givin’ Up” lyrically and vocally she just took you to places that you didn’t know she could go. It was a good balance of songs. They really said something that you didn’t expect them to say. She went deeper than you would expect her to go. She gave us some great notes up in there. I was also the vocal producer on that record because it was a challenge for me because I knew I wanted to get the very best performance out of her that I could. There’s something very fulfilling about watching an artist grow right under your eyes.

Polk: We rehearsed it at the piano before she even went in the booth. It was good because we all got to vibe and really learn the song before we went in there and did it. It was a great sight. I picked up my little pointers from her and the etiquette of how to record in front of the mic and the different things with the headphones that you can do.

King: When I was mixing “Never Givin’ Up” in L.A. I ran into Brandy and Wanya, I knew Wanya from Philly and I had worked with Brandy on another project. They said, ‘What are you doing out here?’ I said, ‘I’m mixing Aaliyah at a studio near by.’ They ended coming over to the studio and Brandy said, ‘What is Aaliyah working on now? I want to hear it.’ I just played “Never Givin’ Up’ and her eyes watered up. She said, ‘She absolutely destroyed this. This is her new sound?’ I said, ‘Yeah this is where she’s going.’ I called Aaliyah that night and told her, ‘Brandy and Wanya were in the studio and they absolutely loved “Never Givin’ Up.’” She was like, ‘That’s what’s up!’

Warren: She was an old soul. She was wiser than her years and the way she carried herself. She had a lot of class.

Happy birthday #AALIYAH #babygirl #bigsis #AWMGWORLDWIDE #AFISHAL #nevergivingup #oneinamillion #stillnumber1

A photo posted by TAVARIUS POLK #AWMG (@tavariuspolk) on

King: Aaliyah visualized “Got To Give It Up.” She said she wanted to use Slick Rick on it. I said, ‘That’s different.’ She got him on that one with her own star power. She came in and cut the track and it was cute watching her cut it because she was dancing the whole time. It’s just one of her all time favorite songs. She said it was one of her dad’s favorite songs too. She just vibed out in that space. To me, the funniest part was trying to figure out the lyrics. Marvin Gaye sang in such a crazy way, a lot of words we didn’t know. We had to sit there for hours making sure we were writing it down properly. We still think we might’ve gotten some words wrong. We replaced about five words just so that they would be female. We didn’t want it to sound like it was from the ‘70s so we changed some lyrics because some of the words just wouldn’t work in the ‘90s like “suga mama.” [laughs]

Kallman: She definitely had an executive producer’s ear. She had a great sense of what was right for herself, and you have to give her a lot of credit for steering those sessions to a place that obviously created meaningful hit records.

King On The Hidden Track “No Days Go By:” It was one of those records that came from the ‘90s era that was more typical of the ‘90s than the other records that I did with her. She heard it while I was at the studio. Probably the fourth week we were there I played it for her. I wrote the whole song. She was so involved in the vocal arrangement with me that I really don’t care if they gave her a writer’s credit. I have no ego about this kind of stuff. I wrote the song, played it for her and the next day she said let’s just cut. She didn’t want her manager to know. We cut it first and then they walked in on it. They weren’t expecting this. I think we had a Slick Rick sample in it, “La Di Da Di,” I think we started it the line, “It’s all because of you.” It was just one of the songs we cut. I don’t even consider it when we talk about her projects because most people don’t know about it. I may end up posting that one-day, a gem that I did with Aaliyah years ago.

Kallman: The goal was to have this be her really coming out and having a defining moment artistically to really set herself apart. Her videos, as well, really contributed to that. Her sense of style and star power that exuded from the videos, I think contributed as well to setting her apart from the rest of the pack.

Aaliyah In Front Of The Camera

Daniel Pearl: I met Aaliyah on the video set for “One in a Million.” We didn’t have too much dialogue with her then. My procedure as a cinematographer/cameraman didn’t interact with the talent too much. That’s the director’s job. My job is to realize the director’s vision, give him or her the shots that they’re asking for and to do the appropriate lighting. We did two videos together. The first we did was the “One in a Million” and the “One in a Million (Remix),” and then I don’t know how much longer it was, probably months or a year passed, I was asked to shoot “4 Page Letter.” That video is what I probably considered my first official directing job. I was impressed from the beginning with her sophistication for her age. It’s a very interesting blend of professionalism and innocence that she possessed that appealed to me. Barry Hankerson, who is an old acquaintance of mine, he called me up and in a spur of the moment I decided yes, this is the time to do it and try it. People had been asking me for years to direct and I always said no, but I thought perhaps this young artist at the time had impressed me when we worked together and I thought perhaps it was time to do that.

Marc Baptiste: I was on contract with Seventeen magazine for two years and shot almost all of the covers and editorial back in the day. That was the very first time I met Aaliyah for a cover shoot. She was excited. She said, ‘I’m going to be on the cover of Seventeen!’ We did eight looks and the music was blaring. I ran into my friend Kidada Jones who is Quincy Jones’ daughter. They were really good friends back then. She introduced us at the Mercer Hotel. We got along great and the next thing I know, ‘I’m going to put my album out. Let’s meet.’ She flew in a month later with her dad, brother, mom and we met at this hotel in the Upper East Side. We talked about the concept of One in a Million, and Aaliyah at such a young age, she was very focused, she knew exactly what she wanted, how she wanted it. We talked about some concepts and she loved it. After the meeting, I got the call that she really wanted me to shoot the album cover for One in a Million. I remember it was a super long day. We started at nine in the morning and we didn’t finish until like 11 p.m. or almost close to midnight. We shot all the way downtown from Canal St. train station. At the time I had the studio at 33 Harrod, that’s where we shot her, and it was incredible. We took a van to Dumbo, Dumbo wasn’t Dumbo back then. It was pretty rough area, so we did half a day in the studio, half a day on location. She worked really hard. She didn’t complain, just kept pushing herself. We rented motorcycles and went all out. It almost looked like a music video shoot, that’s how elaborate the set was.

Pearl: It’s pretty well known that her brother Rashad wrote the concept for “4 Page Letter.” He wrote a short story and they got me the short story, which I loved, and I then translated that into a treatment, a music video treatment. I basically wrote it up as a film, described it scene by scene, some descriptions of what the shots will be, etc. We went from there. She was really easy to get along with. It’s interesting, she managed to preserve, although she grew up in the industry, she was still able to walk that line between the innocence of youth and the knowledge of someone with experience. You could approach her. She didn’t feel like she knew it all, she was very open to conversation. I think she was on her way to becoming a talent on a magnitude of a Whitney Houston. She was a complete package. She was beautiful, she was a singer, a writer and she was an actress.

Baptiste: I wanted to keep her real. The fact that she grew up in Detroit and born in Brooklyn, I wanted to give the album cover a street chic vibe so that she’s more approachable to an audience. I didn’t want to bring her in a Bentley or anything like that. That wasn’t her. She was a down to Earth person. I wanted to keep it street chic and play off her beauty. The actual cover was shot on the Canal Street station. When we did the Subway shot, it was one of our last setups. Back in the day, people didn’t go to Canal Street after nine o’clock or Howard Street. Canal Street was dead around nine. That particular album shot was done really late, like 10:30 or 11 p.m. There were only a few riders in the car.

Pearl: I shot “4 Page Letter” in a place called Sable Ranch, which is northeast of Los Angeles, 45 minutes. It was amazing. I had a great production designer and we basically went into an existing forest and we dressed it with some of the vintage and some of the things to make it more interesting than it was, it took a couple of days. The opening shot for “4 Page Letter” had this big long crane shot. The crane doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s a 75-foot long crane arm that came out of Russia. With that crane in the forest, we started up above the trees and we smoked up the background and the sunlight was coming through the trees. We drop down and pick Aaliyah up as she crosses along a stream. The crane arm also had on its under side a track to run the camera. Not only could the camera be out of the end of the 75-foot arm, the camera could also roll on the under side of that whole arm to track along. We were up in the air, we crane down to her eye level, and the camera starts to track along the arm back to the base of the crane. Some of the vines and the things the camera passes through are attached to the arm. There are cables that support the arm to keep it steady and we actually attached some set pieces to that. As the arm to the crane comes down the pieces come with it and the foreground pieces are actually attached to the crane. It’s quite a cool shot. Oddly enough, when I saw it, although I thought it was a great shot, I thought that we needed to break it up and cut out of the shot. Aaliyah and everyone said, ‘No you can’t break up the shot. The shot is too cool the way it is.’

Baptiste: We didn’t want to deviate too far from her personal style. That’s why we kept it 100 percent Aaliyah. The other iconic images like the electrical facility that’s behind her, she just defined strength and power, electrical power.

Pearl: She was very open to ideas and it’s sad that I have to revisit all of this. It’s a terrible loss really.

The Everlasting Impact Of ‘One in a Million’ & Aaliyah

King: That album was so groundbreaking at that period in music that you’d be hard pressed in finding another album that did a hard reset in the music industry. That album did a hard reset and keep in mind that so many people thought she was over, they thought she was a one hit wonder, they thought she was an R. Kelly protégé, no one expected anything else. He had done Changing Faces and after he had stopped them, they never came back. When I got the call to go to Detroit I was like, ‘She’s doing what?’ I was even shocked because I made her a part of that whole R. Kelly thing. It’s going to come and it’s going to go. We got in the studio and I realized that she’s serious. As a body of work I think One in a Million was her best body of work from top to bottom. The song “One in a Million” kicked the door in for all of us.

Kallman: What I loved about Aaliyah was that she was always up for taking risks and taking chances and giving new people opportunities. She was never afraid of pioneering new sounds and new styles. And that’s evident in her final work because she was willing to really push the envelope and never stay in the same place.

Simmons: Once I saw her in movies, she was such a natural. I’m like wow, she’s just really good at all that she does, style, or clothing, and all that. She definitely would have been a big music exec at some point in her life. You could see that whole thing. Probably a lot of the things that Beyoncé has done, she would have done. I’m not saying on the same level, but she was definitely headed towards that same kind of career to me.

Polk: Everything about her is just something gorgeous. We were in the process of remixing “Never Givin’ Up.” My group, Afishal, we’re in the process of trying to do it, but of course there’s some things that have to be cleared with the record first, with the label and everything. But I’m hoping that they will get to hear that, real soon, hopefully on this project that we’re working on now.

Lowe: I thought that we’d get a chance to work again, and unfortunately what happened, happened. She’s with the angels right now.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Stacy-Ann Ellis

NEXT: Intent On Impact, Kiana Lede Is Ready To Leave Her Mark

After learning The Alphabet Song as a little girl, Kiana Lede would always “get in trouble” for singing during class. “My mom was like, ‘why can't you focus?’” she laughs while reminiscing on her career’s formative years. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! Songs are just playing in my head all the time!’”

Whilst sitting in a shoebox-sized room at Midtown Manhattan’s Moxy Hotel on a humid September day, the now- 21-year-old Arizona-bred R&B songbird, actress and pianist speculates that she “may have had ADD.” However, she settles down after taking off her white cowboy boots and flops down on the ivory-clothed bed, demonstrating that her fiery Aries energy can be contained. Cool as a cucumber, Lede shuffles between chewing on banana candies and blowing smoke rings after taking drags from a pen, all while musing about her journey to becoming a Republic Records signee.

“I just grew up singing and doing musical theater, and reading a lot of books, and playing piano way too much in my room by myself,” she says, pushing her big, curly brown hair out of her face. Her expressive green eyes widen as she grins. “It was my thing. Nobody in my family does music, just me.”

After winning Kidz Bop’s 2011 KIDZ Star USA talent contest at 14 (which her mother secretly entered her into), Lede was signed to RCA Records. She was released from her contract and dropped from the label three years later. However, thanks to guidance and friendship from the Grammy-winning production duo Rice N’ Peas, (who’ve worked with G-Eazy, Trevor Jackson, and Bazzi), she released covers of songs such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while working to get her groove back. The latter rendition resulted in Republic Record’s Chairman and CEO Monte Lipman flying her out and signing her to his label.

“I got a second chance, which a lot of people don't get,” she reveals. “So I'm really happy that that all happened. I wouldn't be here right now in this room if that didn't happen.”

Thanks to the new opportunity she was given, Lede’s sound has evolved into something she’s proud of—equal parts soul, R&B and bohemian. As evidenced by the aforementioned ensemble, glimmers of each aesthetic can be found when observing her personal style as well. She released her seven-song EP Selfless in July, which features the bedroom-ready “Show Love” and “Fairplay,” which manages to fit in the mainstream R&B vein while also showcasing her goosebump-inducing vocals. The remix of the latter features MC A$AP Ferg. What pleases her most is that it not only garnered a favorable response from fans, but that those listeners found it so relatable.

“As an artist, it's really nerve-wracking for someone who writes about such personal things all the time,” she says. “Just the fact that it is my story… It's good to know that other people know that there's somebody on their side, and they're not the only ones going through it. A lot of people obviously feel this way, and have been through this same thing that I've been through. So I think that's cool.”

Although she moved to various places as a Navy serviceman’s daughter, Lede claims Phoenix as home. This means she hails from the same stomping grounds as rockers Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks and the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. However, growing up in a mixed race household gave way to tons of sonic exploration outside of the rock-heavy scene.

“My dad's black, and both of my parents are from the East Coast,” she says of her musical and ethnic upbringing (she’s black, Latina and Native American). “[My parents] listened to a lot of R&B. My mom listened to a lot of SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men. I didn't realize I knew the songs until I got older. I played a charity show with T-Boz, and I was like 'why do I know these songs?'” Lede also says her father was a fan of neo-soul and gangsta rap, but she personally believes the early-2000s was the best time for music.

“[That era] influences a lot of my music subconsciously, and also, singer-songwriter stuff,” she continues. “I listen to a lot of early-2000s music because I played piano most of my life. I listened to Sara Bareilles, John Mayer.”

An open book, Lede details some of her struggles with anxiety and depression with the utmost candor. After being dropped from RCA, her trust in people diminished, and she experienced long bouts of depression after being sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. The track that she feels most deeply about is “One Of Them Days,” which tackles these issues head-on.

“When I'm anxious and depressed, it's really hard to be happy,” Lede says. “Most of the time, I can do it, but there are just some days where I literally can't separate the anxiety, and I can't tell anybody why, because I don't really know why myself… I was feeling very odd that day, didn't even know if I could write a song. Hue [Strother], the guy who I wrote the song with, he was like 'I totally get you. Lots of people go through this.’’’

As we’ve observed in headlines recently, mental health and being honest about life’s trickier situations can help someone going through the same thing, and Lede hopes her music provides encouragement to those who are struggling. As for how she’s learning to push through her mental health roadblocks, she meditates, runs, and is an advocate for therapy, especially in Trump’s America, where harrowing news reports dominate the cycle.

Another hallmark of Kiana Lede’s personality is her bleeding heart for others. She cites women of color, sexual assault victims and the homeless youth specifically as individuals she feels most responsible to help, since she is personally connected to all three. While she’s aiming to create a project that helps homeless youth specifically, she’s working hard this holiday season to ensure that they have a place to stay “at least for the night” after horrific wildfires displaced many individuals in California.

“My passion is really people. Music is just a way that I can get to helping people,” she says with a grin. “Helping people emotionally and physically are both very important. I never want to stop helping people. I feel if other people can respect me, and I can respect myself, then I'll be happy. Happiness is all that we strive for.”

Recently, Lede played her first headlining solo show, a one-night event at The Mint in Los Angeles. While she was thrilled to see that the show sold-out, she was even happier to see the faces of her audience members, who she said ‘looked like [her].’ “Mixed girls, brown girls, black girls, gay boys,” she explains over-the-phone. Even though she wasn’t in person to discuss her latest huge accomplishment, you could hear the pride and joy through her voice.

As for the future of her career, she’s looking forward to more acting roles. You may recognize her from the first season of MTV’s Scream, and after her recent Netflix series All About The Washingtons with legendary MC Rev Run was cancelled, she has been “reading for auditions” and is “negotiating” for a role in a film set to shoot in NYC. While her time with the Run-DMC frontman was brief, she says he taught her about the importance of “not compromising your art for money.”

What Kiana Lede is most excited about, of course, is making music. She hopes to work on a new EP and then release an album after that. The ultimate goal is to fully realize the dreams in her personal and professional life, and she assures she’s just getting started.

“I want to be able to look back on my career and think 'man, I really poured my heart into this music, and made music that mattered, and made music that made people feel a certain way, whether it's bad, good, sad, anxious, whatever it may be.’”

READ MORE: NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight

Continue Reading
Lloyd Pursall

THEY. Break Down The Creation Of 'Fireside' EP And Their Unique Group Dynamic

Dante Jones and Drew Love–equally important, yet separate entities THEY.–arrive comfortably late to the listening of their newly released EP, Fireside. Drew, the more personable member of the group, swaggers into the room in a silk button-down. Failing to fasten the first three of the light brown buttons, his soft mocha chest peeks through. Closely following, Jones saunters in physically present but distant from the world around him, in his Friday's best casual fit. Quickly dividing to greet the crowded room of New York City journalists the pair fan out, taking the east and west wings of Esther & Carroll’s Soho eatery by storm.

Tracks from Fireside flow through the speakers like the honest "Broken," a conversational duet with Jessie Reyez and "18 Months," with Ty Dolla $ign. Both songs go further than love at first sight as THEY. speak on the rough parts of an evolving relationship. Overall, the six-track project takes on the progressive side of R&B with a little help from friends like Reyez, Jeremih, and Wiz Khalifa. Inviting outside forces into their world, the musicians are stretching their creative muscles while providing lessons as ear candy to fans.

THEY. is the culmination of a four-year relationship that has left a beast bigger than the fame in its wake. Standing on the precipice of a new subgenre of hip-hop and R&B, the duo has centered their sound around the eclectic flare of rhythm and blues while crashing into a new lane of its own. The members drive down the same road, they ride in two different cars. Fireside’s inspiration stems from the movie The Grey. "[Fireside is] this really interesting scene where all these different people from different walks of life are coming together,” Jones admits.

Much like the exploits of Agents J and K in Men In Black, their collaboration rings true to the futuristic movie series starring Tommie Lee Jones and Will Smith. Easily distinguished by the eager rookie paired with the grumpy veteran, the roles commandeered by Love and Jones can be heard through the cell phone. Cycling through evolution, the self-proclaimed yin and yang constantly battle the forces of dark and light to bring forth harmony in their ever-changing relationship.

At times unable to see eye-to-eye, the East Coast natives have adapted their rocky partnership, fine-tuning the kinks between them, learning to compromise, and most of all made subtle changes to the ways in which they interact with each other. Never expanding on the nature of their true relationship, the past tensions never seep into the conversation. Throwing subtle brotherly love moments during our interview, the artists toss admirable compliments back and forth.

“He understands where I come from because I am very rough around the edges and very abrasive at times,” Love says of his fellow creative. "Dante can be very hard to read at times, but I think it is an ongoing understanding and continual effort to learn to understand the other person and what triggers them and what doesn't trigger them, what their strengths are and what their weakness are. And how to motivate them and how to work together toward the common goal. I think both the work relationship and friendship have continued to evolve in a good way.”

Following the uprising of their movement through the states, their transcendent sound carried them across the pond to New Zealand and Australia, where they were opened for 6LACK earlier this year. receiving a more welcome reception from their overseas counterparts. The good vibes transferred throughout the show brought them one step closer to the aspirations that bond them together.

“The people are beautiful and you know, are not so pretentious and high strung,” Love explained of the best and worst moments in Australia. “The fans are very receptive to any type of music it seems. They just like to go to concerts and have a good time, as opposed to coming to the United States, you'll get someplace that sit there and fold their arms like you are supposed to impress them.”


View this post on Instagram


Melbourne was a movie 🎥 Round 2 this Wednesday at @theoxfordartfactory. Limited tickets still available. 🐺x🇦🇺

A post shared by THEY. (@they) on Oct 15, 2018 at 6:00pm PDT

Just a few months prior, the duo made their first appearance at Billboard’s Hot 100 Festival. The group caught the short end of the festival stick when their set time clashed with hip-hop acts like Rae Sremmurd and Lil Xan. THEY. was subjected to a crowd cross-armed and unwilling to catch the vibes. Pushing forth a strong performance, the group shattered the hard shells of concert goers, changing their crossed arms and intimidating stares to body rolls and kinder eyes.

As momentum continues for the duo, they've avoided the type of burnout establishing acts normally face. From smaller venues to sold-out arenas, the boys have set their sights on performance meccas like Madison Square Garden. But beyond the surface level goals, THEY. seeks to give the outcasts a place to call home. Leaving their mark on all the generations to come after, former victims of bullying illustrate that life has the opportunity to get better.

“At the end of the day, I want to change the world,” Jones explained. “That's really the goal to change the world and change music and really it only takes one moment. It's like the butterfly effect. We were the first few people to put out the idea of 808's, guitars and pop vocals. Now it's out in the atmosphere and we see a lot more people taking that approach. I feel like ultimately it's circling back our way."

Uncertain about the next trends in R&B, THEY. find themselves ahead of the curve. A few years removed from their first album Nü Religion: Hyena, the two have made strides to perfect their music making formula. Naturally, Dante and Drew are striving to leave a lasting impact on as many people as possible.

Stream THEY.’s Fireside EP below

READ MORE: NEXT: R&B Is Taking Many Directions And Music Duo THEY. Is Creating Their Own

Continue Reading
Ebro Darden caught the Internet's wrath after calling out Kodak Black for sexual assault during an interview.
Getty Images

We're Looking At Y'all: Hip-Hop Won't Have A 'Me Too' Moment Because Of Apologists

Ebro Darden — the host of Hot 97 FM’s radio show Ebro In The Morning — caught the ire of the Internet Wednesday evening (Dec. 12) after a clip from an interview with 21-year-old rapper Kodak Black made the rounds. The longtime radio personality merely admonished and acknowledged the rapper’s recent sexual assault cases, including one that he is currently awaiting trial for. While Ebro noted he wouldn’t be able to go into details since the case is ongoing, he did take a moment to acknowledge that sexual assault is serious, and the discussion will not be ignored in the future.

“Respect to everybody involved in that case, we can’t get into details today… We take sexual assault here serious,” “El Viejo Ebro” exclaimed. “We can’t get into details, but we hope to have you back so that we can have a deeper conversation about that. It’s a serious topic, we’re hearing these stories a lot.” No more than two minutes later, the interview was over, as a visibly uncomfortable Kodak, legal name Bill K. Kapri, stated that the media is “entertained” by “bullsh*t” before leaving.

For some asinine reason, Ebro — a man whose job it is to interview musicians about life and their craft — was the one getting the heat for bringing up the allegations. The uproar was not given to the alleged sexual offender, but to the host acknowledging the wrongdoing by the alleged sexual offender.

Label booked him. I didn’t force anything. I was attenpting to make sure a huge issue was not ignored. https://t.co/vnl0JqeLfi

— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) December 13, 2018

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed posed the question: “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?” Due to the fans, some media personalities and the higher powers continuing to insulate these artists and avoiding discussion of the elephants in the room, it won’t — at least for the time being.

Fans of the Florida MC ignorantly tweeted that Ebro is likely working “with the Feds” for bringing up the sexual assault allegation, which proves that time will not be up anytime soon for men who allegedly abuse women in the game.

Due to many fans’ beliefs that hosts and journalists should “stick to asking artists about music” — and not the controversial lives often documented and discussed more than the careers that provide them bread and butter on the table — time will not be up. A similar “demand” came up earlier this year, when Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” instead of using his platform to discuss politics.

Then, there are media personalities like Peter Rosenberg, who during the Kodak interview aimed to deflect from the situation at hand by asking about the moon landing of 1969, in order to make Kodak feel a bit more comfortable (although his status in the hip-hop game despite his documented wrongdoing certainly makes some uncomfortable as well).

We also can’t ignore the woman on the panel, Laura Stylez, who chose to stay silent instead of using her platform and her voice to stand up for the women allegedly affected by Kodak’s behavior, or women in general. As a woman, her silence rubbed me the wrong way entirely.

These two, however, are not the only problematic personalities. DJ Akademiks, YouTuber turned host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, often discusses his relationship with embattled musician Tekashi 6ix9ine.

“I’m a little sad… but these are the decisions that got here,” Ak, real name Livingston Allen, said in a recent episode of the YouTube series regarding Tekashi’s recent high-profile racketeering arrest and possibility of life in jail. However, he continued to acknowledge that the young man is his n***a, and has not appeared to call out Tekashi for the allegations against him in terms of sexual misconduct.

It doesn’t appear he’s discussed his homie’s sexual misconduct charges head-on since 2014. Even in this particular interview, it appears that the 27-year-old was being more of an apologist for his friend, stating that “[he] could tell [Tekashi] was young, and obviously not thinking straight.”

Is this insulation of musicians who lead perilous lives a way to hold on to the clout these personalities have obtained? Or, is it realizing that if they stop defending these artists as a way to defend those who are hurt, they’ll lose a legion of equally as troublesome fans and followers in the process? Why not attempt to discuss the difficult topic at hand with as much discretion as possible, instead of getting a biased view of the story for clicks?

I know that as a woman in hip-hop, hip-hop doesn’t always love me back, but if this isn’t a slap in the face? To have this conversation occur in the same week that Cyntoia Brown was told she had to serve 51 years in prison for defending herself against a potential rapist, it’s infuriating to have to write about the blatant disregard and disrespect for the well-being of women in society in a field that I hold dear to my heart.

Due to the “separating artists from art” thought-process, especially in such a male-dominated industry and genre, it’s unsurprising that this is the response Ebro received for calling out wrongdoing.

This is the same thought process that allows R. Kelly to continue to tour despite well-documented instances of sexual misconduct for 25 years.

This is the same thought-process that causes music fans to lash out at Vic Mensa for “vehemently rejecting the trend in hip-hop of championing abusers”; although many would argue that he wasn’t the proper messenger to convey such a statement, the intentionality in the statement was appreciated by many.

On a grander scale, this is the same apologist thought-process that placed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump in the White House… and look at how well that’s going.

If we continue this trend of protecting the men in the game and not putting the well-being of the minority consumers of the genre into consideration (such as women and members of the LGBTQ community), hip-hop could be headed to a very murky place. While I don’t always agree with Ebro Darden, I applaud his effort in attempting to start a conversation that can’t continue to be ignored any longer, especially as a man with a platform in the hip-hop media space.

As hip-hop fans, we should aim to hold these artists accountable for their lyrics, comments and behavior. We can’t argue that they’re not hurting anyone through these things just because you don’t feel threatened, because best believe, someone does.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Ebro, Vic and other men attempting to hold these artists accountable is a small step on a long journey. While it’s clear that consumers are more interested in the music these people put out than the lives they lead, it would behoove all of us to take a long look at the state of the game beyond the bars and beats.

READ MORE: Ebro Calls Out Kodak Black For Sexual Assault During Interview

Continue Reading

Top Stories