Aaliyah Week: How ‘One In A Million’ Pushed The Envelope Of 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.’
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.