Siren of Subtlety

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Aaliyah poses for a photo May 9, 2001

The hip-hop-soul singer Aaliyah, 22, died in a plane crash on Saturday. She was reportedly on her way back from the Bahamas to the United States. She had a lot going for her: her last film, "Romeo Must Die" was a box office hit; she had recently completed work on "The Queen of The Damned," a horror film based on the book by Anne Rice. She was also set to co-star in two upcoming sequels to the sci-fi film "The Matrix."

"Aaliyah" the album, was one of the best CDs released this year. Aaliyah, the actual person, although charming, smart and sophisticated, was one of my worst, least-revealing interviews. But make no mistake: Aaliyah was one of the most accomplished, most interesting young vocalists around. Her reticence was actually part of her allure, what drew listeners to her. Aaliyah lived in New York City, but she wasn't really comfortable bringing journalists to her place. So we met, a few months ago, in a Manhattan hotel room. Reporters generally hate hotel room interviews. There's generally nothing to say about the décor, nothing that gives you insight into the star's personality. It's a hotel room.

As usual, Aaliyah arrived dressed all in black. She liked to cloak herself in shadow and secrecy, like a latter-day Greta Garbo. She was born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit (real name: Aaliyah Haughton). When she released her first album, "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number" back in 1994, she was given to wearing sunglasses in most of her photo shoots and public appearances. Later, she took to sweeping her long black hair in front of one eye, a la Veronica Lake. You could never get a good look at her face, never get a good read on what she was thinking, where she was coming from.

In our interview, she kept up her veil of privacy. She wouldn't talk about being married to her one-time producer R. Kelly, except to say that she didn't talk to him anymore and to imply that they weren't married anymore. She wouldn't talk about whom she was currently seeing. She wouldn't even talk much about the plot of the two upcoming sequels to the sci-fi movie "The Matrix" that she was signed to do, except to say that the name of her character was Zee. Aaliyah would have made a fine prisoner of war.

Aaliyah's latest album got great reviews but it didn't sell quite as well as many were expecting. The 22-year-old Aaliyah found herself beaten out on the charts by another hip-hop-R. and B. youngster, 20-year-old Alicia Keys. Still, Aaliyah's release garnered some of the best reviews of any album this year. And, despite the fact the Keys' album is pretty good, Aaliyah's was better and more challenging.

Aaliyah's debut album, "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number" was a beautifully restrained work — her girlish, breathy vocals rode calmly on R.Kelly's rough beats. While other R. and B. divas turned their songs into workouts or prayer revivals or wild romps in the sack, Aaliyah's work was calm, almost prayerful. On her latest album, she came into her own as a vocalist — she was still laid back, but her voice, as a result of training and maturity, was even better able to emotionally detail a song. She was setting an example for all the other young singers out there, the Britneys and the Brandys, the Mandys and the Willas. Youthful pop didn't have to come in day-glo colors. Young singers could also make interesting work in shades of gray.

All that is gone now. Aaliyah joins the small but significant list of musicians who have died in plane crashes: Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, John Denver, Otis Redding, a few others. The blues, and the suffering associated with them, are at the heart of American music; when an American pop performer dies, it brings the bluesy core of the music out, and makes the work seem richer, deeper, sadder. Aaliyah's albums, in the wake of her death, are already shooting to the upper reaches of the charts. Listeners hear the blue echo of tragedy and lean in closer. What makes Aaliyah's death particularly tragic is that she was very young and very much at the top of her game. She also seemed to have a lot more to show us. She was improving rapidly as a performer and she was expanding her range as an actress. She also had the courage to go against the grain and make smarter, subtler sounding music that stood out when compared to her teeny-bopper contemporaries.

When I wrapped up my interview with Aaliyah a few months ago, I was left with many thoughts. I thought she hadn't said very much. I thought that she had played her secrets too close to the vest and her album, though terrific, probably wouldn't sell as well as it perhaps could have because she was such a restrained interview subject.

I also thought this: Aaliyah started performing at the age of 11. She was already a star by the time she was a teenager. Most kiddie stars get less interesting as they get older, they become less expressive, less innocent, less bright-eyed, less creative.

Aaliyah was different. So as I left my interview with her, just a few months ago, this thought was running through my head: this singer is only going to get more interesting as she gets older.