Welcome back to TGJ Replay!
Designed much like our ‘Retro Rewind’ and ‘From the Vault’ features, ‘Replay’ is That Grape Juice‘s newest retrospective segment – a written quest, if you will, to re-spin the gems and jams of yesterday.
Unlike its ‘Rewind’ and ‘Vault’ predecessors, ‘Replay’ looks to dust off and showcase entire albums (and eras) from a library of pop and Urban pop music hits.
With Lifetime Network gaining a bevy of bad reviews for its controversial, unauthorized biography of one of R&B’s most beloved characters, Aaliyah, we thought it a perfect time to shine some light and ode her debut album ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.’ As the album celebrated its 20th birthday this summer, let’s go back back to the ‘Back & Forth’ singer’s humble beginnings…
The world first heard the name of the New York born Aaliyah Dana Haughton when the 10-year-old brought her remarkable talents to the granddaddy of mainstream television talent shows, ‘Star Search.’ A grooming ground for what would later become a bevy of the 2000’s top stars (see: Britney Spears, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, etc…), the tiny tot – affectionately christened “Baby Girl” by those who knew her – took a stirring version of jazz classic ‘My Funny Valentine’ right into America’s living room. A feat, despite being greeted with a thunderous applause from audience members, was later bid farewell with a devastating loss.
The defeat would only act as fuel for the young singer who, just a short 2 years later, would still find herself “winning” as uncle Barry Hankerson (ex-husband to “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight) would sign her to his own imprint, Blackground Records. Securing distribution through Jive Records, the pressure was on the tween yet again to “prove’ herself – not only her worth as a viable recording artist, but also her ability to float an entire label as its flagship act.
Elsewhere, as R&B singer/producer R. Kelly, whose demand was only increasing as music from his debut solo album, 12 Play’ was burning up charts, Hankerson (who also managed Kelly) would arrange a meeting with hopes of securing the former Public Announcement star as the leading producer on Aaliyah’s inaugural project. The meeting would catalyze what would become the collection of tunes that line the tracklist of ‘Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number.’
With mentor Kelly in tow, 14-year-old Aaliyah would begin crafting a contradiction. “Street, but sweet,” as she reportedly called it, her image and accompanying sound would be bass driven and hip hop-drenched, yet maintain a “soft edge.” While ‘What’s the 411’ singer Mary J. Blige very much encompassed and preowned the concept of fusing soothing R&B with hard-hitting hip hop, MJB’s hardened effigy and adult subject matter would see the “sweetness” much less accessible than it was with her teenage counterpart.
Armed with thirteen R&B bangers dipped in hip-hop soul and new jack swing stylings, ‘Liyah would demonstrate her “street, but sweet” approach via the album’s fist single ‘Back & Forth.’
If everything R. Kelly touched in 1993-1994 turned to gold then ‘Back & Forth’ would literally prove no exception. The bass drop that follows the famous introductory riff of the tune was an instant party-starter and would lead ‘Liyah forth to the top of R&B charts. Skyrocketing to #1 on the tally, the song would also peak at #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Proving to naysayers that her streetwise image – despite being a complete anomaly to the bevy of ballad bearing, shimmering gown wearing, diva chart-toppers of the day – was able to resonate with female fans, the young songstress would dominate summer 1994 radio.
A week before her debut album was set to hit shelves, Aaliyah and co. would follow the success of ‘Back’ with a remake of Isley Brother‘s classic ‘(At Your Best) You Are Love.’
Kicked off with an a capella demonstration of a falsetto refined far beyond its years, ‘At Your Best’ would come as the first real showcase of the singer’s vocal ability. The sheer fact that a 14-year old could not only carry the song on the performance tip, but also convincingly convey its message with an almost haunting delivery would come as indication to music lover’s that the success of ‘Back’ was no fluke at all.
Like its predecessor, ‘Best’ would bolt right into the Hot 100’s top 10 (peaking at #6) and top 5 on the R&B charts (#2 peak). By this point the album had already made its impressive debut on Billboard 200 with 74,000 sold its first week.
Debuting at #24, the success of ‘Best’ would help it reach its peak at #18.
From ‘Star Search’ to one of the genre’s biggest stars, Aaliyah was quickly becoming a household name. But, it was not her talent alone that kept her name in heavy mention.
As her album continued to prove itself a steady seller on the charts, the price of fame would bring with it more attention to the young star’s personal life – namely to her relationship with mentor R. Kelly. As rumors swirled that the extent of the duo’s relationship was more than professional, Haughton would ready the release of ‘Best’s follow-up in the form of the album’s title track ‘Age Ain’t Nothin’ But A Number.’
Very much taken for the statement piece that it was presumably meant to be, some critics took the timing of the release as subtle confirmation that the two were indeed an item. This, of course, would be problematic because Kelly was nearly twice her senior.
As the single would be the project’s poorest performing release (#75 peak on Hot 100), elsewhere rumor of her relationship with Kelly would later be confirmed when journalists uncovered an Illinois marriage license that showed the young songstress lied about her age. We guess it really was nothing but a number.
Interestingly, the commercial failure of ‘Age’ (the single) nor the unmasking of her secret marriage would stick as permanently damaging incidents on the singer’s track record. If anything, it would only keep her name in mention and help bide time for the release of her sophomore album.
For Aaliyah’s fans, ‘Age’ was the album that introduced them to and taught them to love Baby Girl. For the rest of the world, however, the album is grossly unappreciated. While some will attribute the album’s (overall) modest performance as indication why, it still lends itself unfortunate that this project is not widely regarded for opening doors for follow-up (African American) R&B teen queens Brandy and Monica. The two would prove themselves, in the long run, better sellers than their ‘Back & Forth’ predecessor, but arguably so because they opted to take safer routes.
Being a 15 year old girl in 1994 who dared to wear street gear was challenging enough. Then, to follow it by tapping even heavier, hip hop driven beats (courtesy of then unknown Virginian producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott), would show even riskier. And, while her matured twist on the “street, but sweet” concept via her sophomore album ‘One In A Million’ would cement the pavement laid for it by ‘Age,’ we still ode the late Detroit diva for her willingness to go against the grain of what was acceptable R&B at the time…especially from the perspective of a teenage girl.
5 million copies sold later, for its daringness and untouchable maturity, we give ‘Age’ its due praise for the gem and catalyst of a career that it was.
P.S. – It’s not uncommon to hear us bump “I’m So Into You” here at TGJ, but tell us your favorite song from ‘Age’: