Review #314: One in A Million, Aaliyah

Karla Clifton
3 min readSep 16, 2022

#314: One in A Million, Aaliyah

Rolling Stone’s blurb about this record doesn’t mention her relationship with R. Kelly, who is currently behind bars, so I have to fall on the sword. It’s hard not to think about Aaliyah without thinking about how she was propelled to fame with R. Kelly uncomfortably at the helm of her career. I think it’s important to recognize how screwed this woman was by not just an individual, but a whole system.

But fortunately, Kelly had little to do with this record, if anything. After (true) rumors that she had gotten underage-married to Kelly, Aaliyah was all but forced to switch record contracts from Jive Records to Atlantic Records to distance herself from him. (Seems fair.) She recorded this record with Timbaland instead, which is admittedly a win for her. This whole thing sounds like a weird 2000s vision of the future, from the moment she wakes herself up on “Beats 4 Da Streets (Intro)” to the beat symphony on “Came To Give Love (Outro).” Aaliyah sounds just like she looks on the album cover: like a character in The Matrix, a quaint vision of the future. (Side note: I’m not going to link every one of these video “visualizers,” but I really, really, really want to.)

But it’s also SO late Nineties. “A Girl Like You” is classic R&B call-and-response, and “If Your Girl Only Knew” is one of those songs about cheating that feels both progressive and dated.

Aaliyah has the ingenuity of Billie Eilish and the snarky elasticity of Nicki Minaj, both of which culminate in “Hot Like Fire” (and also the even more badass “Hot Like Fire (Timbaland’s Groove Mix),” which started the grand tradition of interpolating Susanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”). Vocally she’s got incredible range — “One in A Million” gives the album its first rich moment, then she transitions to swagger and charisma on “Got To Give it Up” and “Never Comin’ Back.” The fact that she gets Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott on “Ladies in Da House” is proof enough of her star power: Aaliyah was always gonna make it, R. Kelly or not.

…Still. Some of the love songs are hard to take. I loved “4 Page Letter” as someone else who can’t seem to stop writing, and Diane Warren’s “The One I Gave My Heart To” (which was specifically written to show off Aaliyah’s higher vocal range) is exquisite, but the rest of them are tough. “I Gotcha’ Back” has a Bill Withers reference, but the line I’m down for whatever/ No matter how ya act has some dark implications. “Heartbroken” made me want to shake her.

When I first started this project, I couldn’t access any of Aaliyah’s album on Spotify other than Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number, which I will not link here because R. Kelly is on the album cover, lurking behind a babyfaced Aaliyah, who sounds like a baby on that song, no matter what anyone says. It’s a relief that her legacy is wresting back some control.

Songs That I Could Take Or Leave: “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Giving You More,” and “Never Givin’ Up” are all extraneous, in my opinion. No offense to crooner Tavarius Polk.

Badass Cover: Isley Brothers “Choosey Lover (Old School / New School).” She really was a wunderkind.

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