Aaliyah Dana Haughton was one of the most endearing personalities in R&B and popular music. In the years following her 1994 debut LP, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, Aaliyah became a major force in radio play and music videos. With an understated command of her firm but supple voice, Aaliyah conveyed charm and sincerity in her songs that ingratiated her with a ‘90s audience that was, at times, wary of anyone who seemed “soft” or “corny”. That she managed to do this while also sounding cool and setting trends is no easy feat.
In 2001, she released her third album, the self-titled Aaliyah, and seemed poised to take her talents to the next level with a more sophisticated musical direction. By this time, she had also gotten into acting, having starred in 2000’s Shakespeare-meets-martial-arts flick Romeo Must Die, playing lady vampire Akasha in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, and filming scenes for The Matrix trilogy. Tragically, on 25 August 2001, she was killed in the Bahamas, where she had been filming a video, when her plane crashed shortly after takeoff. She was only 22 years old.
It’s been ten years since she passed, and Aaliyah’s music remains popular with her fans and relevant to contemporary discourse among music aficionados. Given the brevity of her career, the continued vitality of her legacy speaks directly to our connection to her style, poise, talent, and potential.
The following compilation of my favorite Aaliyah things is meant to celebrate that legacy.
Favorite Debate: There are three discussions regarding Aaliyah that, to this day, remain active and spirited. The first one involves the nature of her relationship to producer and singer R. Kelly. Personally, I don’t care about that one, as it likely has more to do with the desire to talk about R. Kelly than about Aaliyah. The second discussion is about what Aaliyah would be doing if she were alive today. That’s an interesting idea, really, especially when it comes to estimating how Aaliyah might have developed and fit into the current landscape.
However, the debate I most enjoy relates to measuring her actual contributions. One side of the argument is that she didn’t have enough time to establish herself as a true influence. With three albums, a few soundtrack songs, and even fewer posthumously released tunes, Aaliyah was undeniably talented but she is remembered more for her potential than for what she actually produced. The other side of the argument states that Aaliyah helped to perfect the blueprint of the “young urban female pop star”. Mary J. Blige wears the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” crown, having successfully merged her soul leanings with hip-hop beats. Aaliyah traveled a similar path, using angelic tones and harmonies to craft a conversational style still heard today.
Lately, I’ve been veering in the direction of the latter argument, as I’ve come to see Aaliyah’s work, particularly on her final album, as more substantial than just the hint of great potential.
Favorite Album: For me, the answer is easy. Between Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number (1994), One in a Million (1996), and Aaliyah (2001), you should know good and well Aaliyah is the top pick. Aaliyah (also known as “The Red Album” because of the color of its cover) represents a dramatic artistic leap, coupling Aaliyah’s gentle vocals with songwriting and production from Static Major (the late Stephen Garrett), Missy Elliott, and Timbaland (Timothy Mosley), among others. While Aaliyah had always used her soothing voice to soften edgy musical accompaniment, she hadn’t done it before with such clear confidence of vision, stellar execution, and diversity of material. This is the album that fuels the speculation over how she would have expanded her repertoire as her career developed. Indeed, the Red Album displayed the growing synergy between Aaliyah, her writers, and her producers.
Aaliyah, for her part, further hones the rhythmic angles of her vocal delivery. You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who surfs a groove—particularly some of the oddball soundscapes on this album—as precisely as Aaliyah did. Diversity of style and subject matter also weigh heavily here, including the discordant snake charming “We Need a Resolution”, the sensual Missy Elliott penned “I Care 4 U”, the jumpy “More Than a Woman”, Latin-flavored “Read Between the Lines”, Aaliyah’s rock-tinged banger “What If”, and the smoothness of ‘80s-sounding jams “Rock the Boat” and “Those Were the Days”. Aaliyah, the Red Album, entered its tenth anniversary in 2011, and it still sounds fresh.
Favorite Soundtrack Song: There’s stiff competition for this: the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack’s “Are You That Somebody” and two songs from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, “Try Again” and “I Don’t Wanna”. “Try Again” is an award-winning tune, with Timbaland opening the song in dramatic orchestral fashion while appropriating a Rakim line with, “It’s been a long time / I shouldn’t have left you / without a dope beat to step to”. “I Don’t Wanna” showcases an ode to rekindling love, often in a near-double time delivery, something like Usher’s “Confessions, Part II” or Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”.
While I totally dig these two songs, “Are You That Somebody” wins the day. Static and Timbaland’s “Are You That Somebody” is just too good to be relegated to soundtrack status. It’s a fantastic track, with a stomping rhythm alternatingly accented by the strangest bundle of noise. It sounds like someone shaking dice or cracking their knuckles or twisting a Rubik’s Cube really fast—I can never decide which.
It’s also got a recurring sample of a baby cooing that sounds a lot like the one Prince used at the end of “Delirious”. Weird. Aaliyah’s “sweet but street” persona is in full effect, as she declares, “Sometimes I’m goody-goody / Right now I’m naughty naughty.” There’s a sense of longing in the appearance of the song’s title (“‘Cause I really need somebody / Tell me are you that somebody”) and also in the way she sings it, stretching out the syllables to the point of desperation and then keeping up with the beat with hurried, jumbled phrasings. This song is crazy good.
Favorite Collaboration: “Back in One Piece”, from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, features rapper DMX joining Aaliyah for the type of rapper/singer duet that can easily go awry. Yes, Method Man’s “All I Need”, with Mary J. Blige, is one of hip-hop’s most venerated attempts at creating synergy between the sweet side of life and the street side, while making a play on the Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson tune “You’re All I Need to Get By” made popular by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. However, DMX and Aaliyah performed a smart take on a familiar theme.
In “Back in One Piece”, Aaliyah’s role is the devoted worrier. She’s afraid for her man’s safety when he goes out at night. “I barely sleep,” she sings, almost breathless. Wishing he would just call her to let her know he’s not “in some heat”, Aaliyah’s verse and refrain are pleas that he’ll check in with her and “make it back in one piece.” They are also prayers, I think, because she knows he won’t check in and any promises he makes to come home safely are far from guarantees. DMX’s rap is short on reassurances. With lines like, “Let me go, I’ll be back, I ain’t got time to convince”, he sounds as if he’s in too much of a rush to console her.
I like that the song doesn’t try to wrap things up neatly with a meeting of the minds. Instead, both sides are entrenched in their positions, forcing them to agree to disagree. I suspect the two personalities in this song would argue a lot, and there’s quite a bit of realism in that.