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.
My Favorite Slow Jam
Honestly, for the Favorite Slow Jam categhory, I want to go with “I Care 4 U” here, because it’s such a sexy song, but, first, I’m aware that I’m too biased in favor of the Aaliyah album and, second, I think “One in a Million” represents Aaliyah better in the slow jam department. “Your love,” she coos, “is a one in a million / It goes on and on and on.” The beat for “One in a Million” is awfully hard for a romantic song, but that’s the point, actually: love — or, at least the type of love portrayed in this song — is beautiful but continual and inexorable.
Favorite Dance Track: How can anyone resist the urge to dance to “Back & Forth”, from Aaliyah’s debut? At the time of its release, this song was a staple for US radio programmers and club deejays, employing a simple, oft-repeated theme: the deejay needs to keep the people grooving while the singer orders the party people to hit the dance floor. Simple, but effective, and Aaliyah’s layered vocals warm the track like a soothing blanket. “Back & Forth” integrates seamlessly into any up-tempo dance playlist.
Favorite Video: Static and Timbaland put together a heck of a tune for Aaliyah when they came up with The Red Album’s “More Than a Woman”. The production bumps and jerks, contrasting a smooth groove with the spikes and dips of its loops and cadences. Aaliyah manages to croon over this mechanical bull of a beat, and the lyrics are appropriately terse and frugal, as if she only needs a few key phrases to remind her significant other that she is in fact “more than enough for you.”
The video, directed by Dave Meyers, translates the audio into a sleek visual. In it, Aaliyah rides a motorcycle through the city, racing and popping wheelies and stuff. At the same time, she and her crew of dancers are also inside of the motorcycle, as part of the mechanism. You see her image in the motorcycle’s headlight, and that headlight shape returns later in the form of sound system speakers. She and her entourage bust a move inside the engine or whatever, with the all the components hard at work, pumping. The video doesn’t bother with a storyline, but it’s pretty darn slick, with Aaliyah sporting a bodacious all-white riding suit in much of the footage.
One thing I’m a sucker for is a group dance, all choreographed and synchronized. Whether it’s in a musical or a Michael or Janet Jackson video, something about it makes me smile, perhaps the sheer whimsy of it. If someone wanted to show me how much they cared for me, and the best way they could convey that was to strike a pose in a well-rehearsed, perfectly timed routine with background dancers I’ve never met before — well, I’d be impressed.
Aaliyah’s dancing in her videos probably owed a debt to the videos for Michael and Janet Jackson’s solo work. No doubt that’s true of many artists. Actually, the “More Than a Woman” video brings to mind Michael and Janet’s “Scream” video, as well as Janet’s video for “Rhythm Nation”. However, I always thought there was an effortless quality to Aaliyah’s dance moves. It was laidback and fluid, yet flawless, and it never seemed like she was overdoing it. Aaliyah seemed to be saying, “Oh, this ol’ slinky dance number I’m doing? I do this in my sleep. It’s no big deal. But I bet you can’t keep up with it.”
Song That Makes Me Grin: “If Your Girl Only Knew” is a popular track from Aaliyah’s second album, One in a Million. Timbaland laces the beat with a swaggering guitar lick, a loop that accentuates the romantic limbo alluded to in the lyrics. The song makes me grin, mostly unintentionally, because Aaliyah is singing about a guy who’s trying to flirt with her and she’s asking him what his girlfriend would do if his girlfriend knew about his infidelity. “She would probably leave you alone,” Aaliyah answers the question for him. “She would probably curse you out and unplug her phone.”
Aaliyah’s narration isn’t completely disinterested in his advances (“If your girl only knew / that I would want to kick it with you”) but something tells me this guy is running the risk that she’ll tell his girlfriend what’s been going on. To me, Aaliyah sounds amused, playful even, and if his girlfriend didn’t already know about his shenanigans, I gotta believe she would have figured it out when she heard the song in heavy radio rotation (smirk). When you think about it that way, this is a nightmare for this guy, but funny for us — he tries to “kick it” with Aaliyah and gets his attempt at being a player broadcast in one of her songs.
The sentiment of rejecting the moves of a man who’s supposedly in a relationship reminds me of Erykah Badu’s “Booty”, as Badu declares that she can easily attract this sort of man but wouldn’t want him because of how he disrespects the woman he already has. Aaliyah’s song features a far more passive narrator, which adds to the humor of her rebuff (“She’s crazy to put up with you / Oh boy, I won’t be no fool”) because there’s also a hint here of Badu’s forthrightness and even a subtle taste of the cockiness in Salt ‘N’Pepa’s “I’ll Take Your Man” and Eric Benet’s “Loving Your Best Friend”. It’s like she’s acknowledging that she could start something with this guy if she wanted to, but she wouldn’t because she’s not naïve enough to be the girl who gets cheated on or cheated with.
Best Tribute: SoulCulture’s 2009 Aaliyah Revisited EP/mixtape takes the prize. Remaking some of Aaliyah’s best known tracks, the collection recruits artists Sy Smith, Tawiah, Jesse Boykins III, Black Einstein and Baby Sol, Marsha Ambrosius, Jonas, Vula, and AFTA-1 and Nikko Gray. The project reimagines the music while supplying new vocals, although Black Einstein and Baby Sol’s take on “It’s Whatever” remains faithful to the tempo and piano twinkles of the original. Vula’s “Rock the Boat” is the second most faithful, mainly regarding the vocal arrangements and swirling synths during the choruses, but there’s still a minimalist approach that helps to distinguish it. If you’ve ever wondered what “Are You That Somebody” might sound like as a reggae-flavored track — and I confess the thought never occurred to me — Tawiah’s rendition might suit you.
The undisputed heavyweights of the set are Jesse Boykins III’s “I Care 4 U”, Jonas’s “One in a Million”, and AFTA-1 and Nikko Soul’s “4 Page Letter”. The first two utiltize a gender switch by employing male vocalists. I don’t usually love covers and remakes, largely because I generally find them inferior to the originals (but not always — I think Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” blows Prince’s original version out of the water).
I’m more likely to enjoy them when a female lead substitutes for the original male, and vice versa. It adds a shift in perspective, like when Me’shell Ndegeocello sang the Bill Withers song “Who Is He and What Is He to You?” on her Peace Beyond Passion (1996) LP or like everything on the Bird & the Bee’s Reinterpreting the Masters, Volume One: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates (2010). Of course, when she does a cover, Ndegeocello has a knack for giving the song a complete makeover, exploding all expectations about tempo, instrumentation, and melody. For proof, see her version of “Fantasy” on “Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire or her remake of Ready for the World’s slow jam “Let Me Love You Down” on her own Devil’s Halo (2009).
I’m not suggesting there’s anything as radical here as Me’shell Ndegeocello might have created. Still, Jesse Boykins III is riveting on “I Care 4 U”, offering an ethereal, quiet storm presentation that would have made an interesting arrangement for Aaliyah herself. Jonas’s “One in a Million” speeds up the original and works out to be all the better for it. Likewise, AFTA-1 and Nikko Gray do great justice to fan favorite “4 Page Letter”, delivering a memorable finale to the set.
Favorite Aaliyah Moment: At the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, Aaliyah won the Best Female Video award for “Try Again”. After the announcement, she made her way to the podium, bringing her brother Rashad along with her. Aaliyah mentioned that she’d started filming scenes for Queen of the Damned in Australia, and she and her brother flew back to the United States specifically to participate in the award show. Ever gracious, she included a heartfelt “thank you” to her label and musical team, her brother (she calls him “My Everything”), and God, and she concluded by dedicating the win to her grandfather and to “the memory of my grandmother”. That sequence of her leading her older brother to the stage, along with her “thank you” list, and the very personal final dedication — that’s my favorite Aaliyah moment.