‘Aaliyah’: The Legacy of the Perfect R&B/Pop Record

Aaliyah’s patented brand of Black pop, a mélange of hip-hop, electropop, and soul, set the standard by which other urban-pop singers were judged and set the stage for Beyonce and Rihanna.

7 July 2001

Even if Aaliyah’s self-titled third album, released in 2001, wasn’t released a month before she died, it would still be an important record. Her early death would add significance and meaning to Aaliyah because it not only is a capture of her prodigious talents but also shows us the promise that was cut off so abruptly. Aaliyah was released at the early peak of the singer’s career, when she was in full possession of her gifts. Unlike music from artists who have the privilege of old age, Aaliyah’s work never diminished. Yet, she was accomplished enough to have created a substantial and enviable discography of some of her generation’s most exciting and innovative urban-pop music. As Joshua Clover wrote, “Aaliyah’s a musicologist. Like an electronica whiz, she makes the sonics tell the story, creating meaning outside lyrics, pleasure beyond the hooks.” 1

Aaliyah was cruelly taken away when she was making her best work, but because she had been making music since she was a teenager, she had built a significant legacy. It would be tempting to set Aaliyah in amber, freezing her, like other artists who have died young, but doing so would be a disservice to her work because it is vital and vibrant. Her influence can be heard in the music of her peers like Monica, Brandy, and Mya, and established legends like Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott (Aaliyah’s collaborator) attest to her particular genius. Emil Wilbekin summed up her influence and legend beautifully:

I think we lost an artist with great promise and great talent so you can’t really measure the loss because it’s a loss. But what we did receive from her is incredible, memorable music that still stands up today. I believe that Aaliyah opened the door for Beyonce and Rihanna to be who they are. If you think about it, from the vein of a Janet Jackson who can sing, act and dance, Aaliyah opened up that door for a lot of younger artists and inspired a lot of younger women to be strong, sexy and respected. 2

Key to her legacy is Aaliyah’s partnership with Timbaland, considered to be some of the most critical and groundbreaking urban-pop music of the past 20 years. The particularly creative and fruitful collaboration between Timbaland and Aaliyah is reminiscent of Jackson’s brilliant work with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Aaliyah recalls the virtuosity of Jackson’s Control (A&M, 1986) as a prime example of a gifted performer being matched with dynamic producers. DJ Jamz Supernova pointed out, “The chemistry between her, Timbaland, and Missy was second to none, and the sound they made was so unique that it ended up being the blueprint for so much of the R&B we hear now.” 3

To Jamz’s point, the album is widely considered one of the greatest pop LPs of the 2000s and has been canonized, finding its place in various ‘best-of’ lists as well as named a major genre-defining record of its time. There are several reasons Aaliyah’s critical acclaim and legend are significant. Most canonical, ‘classic’ records prize authenticity and auteurship over production and style. What that means is that pop records – specifically female-fronted ones are often underestimated as vital because they don’t necessarily have the markers of what’s often considered ‘great’ music: a singer-songwriter who is chiefly responsible for their output. But Aaliyah is a big-budgeted pop/R&B record created by a host of songwriters and producers, and a crucial part of its legacy is style and visual. Though Aaliyah wasn’t a songwriter, she was a fantastic interpreter, using her pretty voice to bring to life the wildly creative soundscapes created for her by her musical partners. Critic Nathan Rabin complemented Aaliyah’s growth as an artist on the album writing: “Her strikingly assured third album establishes the young overachiever as a major artist in her own right.” 4

What sets Aaliyah apart from pop/R&B records of the city. The work that Aaliyah and Timbaland made each other defined as “The ‘street but sweet’ brand of R&B she crafted with…Missy Elliott and Timbaland, both defined and reinvented the sound of ‘90s urban music.”5 The album opens with a classic Aaliyah/Timbaland jam, “We Need a Resolution”. Written by Static Major (another brilliant talent who died far too young) and crafted by Timbaland, it’s a pop wonder. A sinewy synth undulates alongside skittering beats and vocal samples before Aaliyah’s cool vocal enters, surfing on the wave-like synths. As Aaliyah croons, synthetic hand claps keep in time. It’s an odd yet thrilling record and a brilliant choice for a first single.

The song is a mini-suite, cramming sounds of electrofunk, pop, and soul – it’s a breathtaking accomplishment of technological flair. But it’s important to note that Aaliyah’s moody performance is as integral to the song’s brilliance as is Timbaland’s studio sorcery. Aaliyah’s vocals are multi-layered and collaged throughout the song, as she acts as the lead singer and her own backup group; it’s wall-to-wall Aaliyah. When singing the hook or chorus, the stacked Aaliyah vocals hypnotize listeners as they slither. In 2001, “We Need a Resolution” harkened to the future of Black pop music in which hip-hop, pop, synth-pop, and soul would be pulled together into a brilliant, shiny sound.

Timbaland’s odd genius weaved itself through Aaliyah, popping up on two other tracks, both of which were singles. “More Than a Woman” is a swirling mass of sounds and noises – strutting electric guitars, squeaky rubbery bass, and a humming synth – that sounds stately and grand, nearly cinematic. Though the song is gaudy and overstuffed, there’s restraint in Timbaland’s handling of the song’s structure. Just as we expect the track to reach a euphoric crescendo, the tune pulls back, so we never get that beat drop we want. It’s a brilliant way of confusing listeners and keeping them on their toes.

On the third track that sees Timbaland and Aaliyah work together, “I Care 4 U”, the maestro throws logic out of the window by recasting his muse as a 1970s soul balladeer. Instead of indulging in his techno musical genius impulses, he creates a languid, sexy slow jam. The lyrics are penned by Timbaland’s longtime partner, Missy Elliott, a talent as unique and brilliant as his. Stepping away from the flashy high-gloss of the other tunes he created for Aaliyah, “I Care 4 U” is a swaying, stirring slow dance of a tune. It’s a song that not only pays homage to the soul divas of the 1970s like Minnie Riperton or Syreeta Wright – Michael Odell wrote that the song is “the sort of 1970s style ballad that Aaliyah’s aunt, Gladys Knight, would approve of” 6 but it puts Aaliyah’s gorgeous, silken voice on display.

Divas with sweet croons like Aaliyah are often underrated in comparison with the leather-lunged soul shouters who work overtime to smash as many notes as possible into one word, but as Hyun Kim pointed out, “Aaliyah’s singing voice, while not all that powerful, sounds like she’s whispering in your ear from the pillow next to yours, slowly seducing you over Timbaland’s simmering beats.” 7 As if to prove Kim’s point, on “I Care 4 U”, Aaliyah’s smooth voice displays pleasing tones and colors, impressive timbre, and beguiling richness.

Though Timbaland and Aaliyah are forever linked with each other, their sounds intertwined, his presence on Aaliyah is relatively spare compared to their previous work, her 1996 album One in a Million, in which the producer is credited on half of the album’s tracks. Instead of being defined as a Timbaland production, Aaliyah is at once consistent and diverse, with an abundance of talent. Nathan Rabin noted that despite many of the collaborators listed in the credits, “[Aaliyah] feels surprisingly cohesive.”8 Though the chemistry between Timbaland and Aaliyah is irresistible and inimitable, the other songs on Aaliyah display the singer’s ability to fill the soundscapes created for her with her distinct gifts.

On the single “Rock the Boat”, producers Eric Seats and Rapture Stewart craft a song that is as good as anything Aaliyah had done with Timbaland. The mid-tempo R&B tune is a gorgeous, lush, swinging confection with subtle hints of 1980s quiet storm ballads. Aaliyah’s vocals are at their prettiest – light and airy, floating like soft butterflies on the pillowy synths. Though her singing is sedate and lowkey on the record, it’s as effective as any scale-climbing wail from a bigger-voiced singer, as Shenequa Golding rightly asserted that the softness of her voice did not indicate of vocal prowess.9 In fact, the economy of Aaliyah’s singing pinpoints the excellent way she uses nuance and phrasing to embody the sensuality of the song’s lyrics. Like a modern day Lena Horne, Aaliyah uses her voice to set the mood, allowing for the flexibility and agility of her voice to enliven the languid groove.

Seats and Stewart work magic with Aaliyah on the album tracks, as well. In what could be seen as the best song on the record, “Extra Smooth”, the pair outdo themselves, placing Aaliyah’s sexy purr in a funky setting with pulsing synthesizer. There’s a slight, cartoonish weirdness to the track, especially in the song’s woozy open, with the swinging synth rolling in, sounding like something from Rugrats (In his review, Ernest Hardy called the tune “playful”).10 Her performance is all attitude and swagger. On a record stuffed with high points, this song stands out.

The other Seats/Stewart productions like “Loose Rap” and “U Got Nerve” are extravagant vehicles for the skill of the production duo. These songs are prime examples of top-shelf urban-pop tunes that capture a fantastic blend of electronic music with R&B. Earlier, I mentioned Janet Jackson’s Control and the comparison is apt. In 1986, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis pioneered a new sound with Jackson that married synth-pop, soul, funk, and dance-pop. The metallic sheen of the Seats/Stewart songs are just as marvelous in their sonic novelty as are the Jam, Lewis, and Jackson tunes. Like Control, Aaliyah is a predictor of Black pop music. On the enduring power of his work with Aaliyah, Seats said, “When people say the album still feels fresh, or that it feels timeless, I appreciate that.” He adds, “I don’t know if any of us sought out to make a classic album…You hope to do the best work.”11

Aaliyah was released in the summer of 2001, and it’s an essential record when looking at the innovation and evolution of Black pop in the 21st century. Its roots can be traced to the synth-driven sounds of hip-hop born in the Bronx, but the album’s sound feels like it’s been recorded in outer space. The swinging beats of New Jack Swing gave way to the scattered, chipped beats, giving the songs an unpredictable and off-kilter sound.

For a mainstream pop record, Aaliyah pushes the boundaries of radio-friendly urban pop. Because of these songs, pop radio was forever changed: echoes of Aaliyah can be heard on records like Brandy’s brilliant Afrodisiac, which saw Timbaland conjure some of that special magic he shared with Aaliyah with Brandy; Destiny’s Child’s final album, Destiny Fulfilled; Ciara’s debut, Goodies; Justin Timberlake‘s solo debut, Justified; and Monica’s After the Storm. Much like Janet Jackson’s Control set a template of sorts for dance-pop divas in the 1980s, Aaliyah’s patented brand of Black pop, which was a mélange of hip-hop, electropop, and soul, set a standard against which other young urban-pop singers were judged.

After Aaliyah came out, her label looked to its vaults to release unreleased material. In 2002, Blackground released I Care 4 U, a compilation of Aaliyah’s greatest hits, as well as a selection of tracks that failed to make the cut for Aaliyah. In 2021, it was announced that a final studio LP will be released. Unstoppable is a project that will include contributions from artists like Drake, Ne-Yo, Future, and the Weeknd, who is featured on the album’s first single, “Poison”, released eight years after her last single. It’s unclear whether the material on Unstoppable will measure up to Aaliyah’s work while she was alive, but her legacy won’t be marred, even if the new music isn’t as good.

Aaliyah is a perfect urban-pop record whose lasting influence can be heard still today, 21 years later.  As Jasmin Kent-Smith put it, “The album’s cultural butterfly effect is still being felt today. The LP known to many as The Red Album shifted the needle of R&B, breaking away from the shiny, wistful love songs that were the genre’s stock-in-trade towards something edgier and more futuristic.” 12

Works Cited

1 Clover, Joshua. A review of Aaliyah. Spin Magazine, August 2001.

2 Golding, Shenequa. “Aaliyah Week: Baby Girl’s Final Goodbye.” Vibe, 25 August 2016.

3 “13 Artists on the Timeless Allure of Aaliyah’s Self-Titled Masterpiece.” Crack Magazine. 7 July 2021.

4 Rabin, Nathan. A review of Aaliyah. AV Club, 17 July 2001.

5 Kennedy, Gerrick D., “Aaliyah: 10 Years Later, Impact Holds without Posthumous Releases.” Los Angeles Times, 25 August 2011.

6 Odell, Michael. A review of Aaliyah. The Guardian, 13 July 2001.

7 Kim, Hyun. “Revisit Aaliyah’s August 2001 Cover Story: ‘What Liles Beneath?’ (Originally in Aug. 2001), Vibe, 7 July 2020.

8 Rabin, Nathan. A review of Aaliyah. AV Club, 17 July 2001.

9 Golding, Shenequa. “Aaliyah Week: Baby Girl’s Final Goodbye.” Vibe, 25 August 2016.

10 Hardy, Ernest. A review of Aaliyah. Rolling Stone, 2 August 2001.

11 “13 Artists on the Timeless Allure of Aaliyah’s Self-Titled Masterpiece.” Crack Magazine. 7 July 2021.

12“13 Artists on the Timeless Allure of Aaliyah’s Self-Titled Masterpiece.” Crack Magazine. 7 July 2021.