My Favorite Aaliyah Things

Ten years after her passing, R&B and popular music fans still love Aaliyah. The continued vitality of her legacy speaks directly to our connection to her style, poise, talent, and potential.

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.

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