Street But Sweet

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Seduction and bloodletting are not topics that shy girls tend to bring up. But during an interview in a Manhattan hotel, self-described shy girl Aaliyah manages to touch on both.

The actress (in last year's action hit Romeo Must Die) and hip-hop soul singer (her third CD, Aaliyah, on Blackground/ Virgin, came out last week) is talking gleefully about a love scene in her next movie. It's Anne Rice's The Queen of the Damned, and Aaliyah, 22, plays the boss vampire Akasha. "Akasha is very manipulative," she says. "She and Lestat [a character played by Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire and by Stuart Townsend here] get into a tub, and I seduce him. So I had to kiss him on the chest and draw blood." She is smiling as she says this. Then she adds, "I was very shy about it." But it's too late. Once you've sucked blood out of an actor's chest, it's too late to go back to shy.

For R.-and-B. stars, movies are the new videos. Vocalists who came of age watching Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard see film roles as essential elements of divadom. Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child recently headlined MTV's hip-hop remake of Carmen; next month Mariah Carey will star in Glitter. As for Aaliyah, she has been signed to play a character named Zee in the two upcoming sequels to The Matrix. She is still waiting on plot details in the top-secret productions but says she hopes to get in on the action: "There's nothing like a strong woman who kicks butt."

Born Aaliyah Dana Haughton in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Detroit, Aaliyah didn't begin her career as the butt-kicking type. She performed on Star Search when she was 11 and failed to win. Closely supported by family (her mom is her manager), she released her first album, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, when she was just 15 but was rocked by scandal when reports surfaced that she had secretly married R. Kelly, the producer of her debut, who was 10 years older. Kelly and Aaliyah have since parted ways. When asked if she is still in touch with Kelly, Aaliyah answers only with a firm, frosty no. Her multiplatinum sophomore album, One in a Million (1996), proved she could make music--and sell records--without Kelly's help.

Aaliyah's new CD--coming five years after her last one--has been much anticipated. For young audiences tiring of teeny pop and older listeners turned off by gangsta rap, the new wave of hip-hop-soul singers provides a safe haven: music that's gritty but not dirty, youthful without being adolescent. (This month hip-hop-soul newcomer Alicia Keys, a protege of Clive Davis, the executive who signed Houston, saw her charming first album, Songs in A Minor, debut on the charts at No. 1.)

Aaliyah describes her own sound as "street but sweet"; her tracks typically feature gentle vocals riding on a hard beat. Aaliyah's singing on her latest CD is more assertive than in the past and her melodic lines more distinct. The best songs--the thumping More Than a Woman and the elegant ballad It's Whatever--display a growing sophistication and emotional depth. One track, Never No More, is about a woman leaving a physically abusive relationship.

The key to Aaliyah's charm, however, is mystery. The young star loves to hint at private quirkiness. She says her apartment in Manhattan is littered with Egyptian objects: cat statues, Egyptian pictures, a dresser shaped like a pyramid. At the start of her career, she hid her eyes behind large dark glasses. Later on, she took to wearing her long dark hair swept in front of one eye, like '40s film star Veronica Lake. (These days she is letting both her eyes show.)

Aaliyah tends to dress all in black--black dresses, black boots, black whatever. She will venture into other hues, but her fashions are almost always stylish and sleek. Let the Jessica Simpsons and Mandy Moores have the pastels and plaids. Says Aaliyah: "There's a dark side of me that comes out in everything I do." Even as she steps into the spotlight, she's got one leg in the shadows.