Thursday, 13 April 2017

AALIYAH: A retrospective review

Following The Midnight Ramble's detour into Rihanna last year, here's a look back at the work of nineties RnB superstar Aaliyah.

I was a bit young when she was in the ascendant, so I missed most of her music. The first time I remember her was as the female lead in the Jet Li movie Romeo Must Die and the song 'Try Again', off the movie's soundtrack.

Enough rambling. On with the reviews!

Age Ain't Nothing But A Number (1994)
Produced by her mentor/illegal husband R. Kelly, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number was a big hit in 1994 and made Aaliyah a star.

Nothing wrong with this picture...
At the time, the album was seen as something of a trendsetter, setting the template that later artists like Destiny's Child, Monica, Brandy, Alicia Keys and Rihanna would follow. It helped consolidate R Kelly's status as a mega-star, and along with his earlier album 12 Play, signalled a new style of RnB music for the nineties.

Which is not to say it's great.

While it is by no means bad, this album can be summed up as a couple of strong singles wrapped in hype, nineties cliches and R Kelly's requisite pervy-ness. The production is smooth and lush, while the beats and rap verses all feel very of their time.

'Back & Forth' is a great party song and 'At Your Best (You Are Love)' is a great cover of the Isley Brothers tune (and might boast Aaliyah's best vocal), but the rest of the track list is a little rote.

The title track, shorn of context, is a fine ballad, but the same cannot be said for 'No One Knows How To Love Me Quite Like You Do' which is just a collection of self-congratulatory platitudes about Kelly. Ugh.

'I'm So Into You' is a little generic, but it features a memorable melody and strong backing vocals, which help cover for the cut-and-paste lyrics. 'Young Nation' is a nice slow jam that acts as a spiritual sequel to George Clinton's 'One Nation Under A Groove', although it does feature Aaliyah singing about herself in the third-person, which just feels pointlessly aggrandising.

A seminal RnB record? Evidence for the prosecution? Bit of both really. The big problem may be that Kelly's productions are too attuned to her delivery, while her later work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott is more challenging and experimental. Kelly may have made her a star, but its her future work which would prevent Aaliyah from being a one-hit wonder.

If you can ignore the background stuff, the album is definitely worth a listen to see where Aaliyah started out. Some really great songs, and the filler is not that bad.

One In A Million (1996)
Freed of the smoking train wreck of her collaboration with R Kelly, Aaliyah gained two new collaborators in Timbaland and Missy Elliott, and found a second wind.

    No sophomore slump here! Everything about One In A Million is leaps and bounds beyond her debut. Age Ain't Nothing But A Number can't help but sound like 1994. Released two years later, One In A Million still sounds fresh and ahead of the curve.

    The intro feels like a response to the intro on her debut. Where that opener played like a red carpet for the arrival of R. Kelly's new protege, 'Beats 4 Da Streets' feels like an aural transition, as the singer leaves her mentor's aesthetic behind for something more mature and attuned to her talents.

    This segues into the opening track, 'Hot Like Fire' is a slow jam that feels akin to Maxwell and D'Angelo's first albums (both of which were also released in 1996). A near-total change of pace from the sound  and content of her debut, this song establishes a different vibe -- more sophisticated and adult, but without the crassness of Kelly's material.

    'One In A Million' is one of Aaliyah's signature songs, and offers a perfect example of how Timbaland's arrangements and production complement Aaliyah's voice. Whereas R. Kelly's pungent style blended with Aaliyah's soft voice, Timbaland's harder, yet more barebones aesthetic works against her voice to create a more interesting juxtaposition, the 'street but sweet' sound that became Aaliyah's defining aural signature.

    'A Girl Like You' interpolates a sample from the opening bars of Kool & the Gang's 1974 classic 'Summer Madness', which lends the song a certain wistful quality that adds to the flirtatious interplay between Aaliyah and rapper Treach (Naughty by Nature).

    A cover of an Isley Brothers song from 1983 (Aaliyah also covered their 'At Your Best (You Are Love)' on her debut), 'Choosey Lover (Old School/New School)' is the showpiece of the early part of the album, and sums up the intelligence of Timbaland's production. In keeping with its origins, the first half of the song sounds like an RnB ballad from the early eighties. Complete with wailing guitar and warbling electronic effects, it is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics, in which a woman thanks her new lover for choosing her. About halfway through, the song completely changes -- the production jumps forward to the minimalist beats of the late nineties, but more importantly, the sentiment of the lyrics completely changes. If the first half of the song conveys the euphoria of early love, the second half is a post-mortem, after the relationship has failed and the lover has not turned out to be as virtuous as the girl thought he was. The chorus suddenly gains a biting irony, the stripped-down sound highlighting her cynicism and disdain. It's a great cover that manages to take a decisive step from the original and stand completely on its own.

    By contrast, I'm meh on the the remake of Marvin Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up'. It's fine, but it doesn't really add anything new. Considering how good the sequencing is on this album, I find it somewhat baffling that this song was placed after  'Choosey Lover', when the song that follows feels more like a natural progression.

    Speaking of which, it's hard to listen to '4 Page Letter' and not think of the singer's relationship with R. Kelly. Basically an ultimatum from a woman to her boyfriend, like 'Choosey Lover' it represents a break with the underlying machismo of her debut (which often feels like a tribute to its writer-producer). While her second album is mostly produced by men, the lyrical bite and focus on female agency and personal respect is almost certainly the result of Missy Elliott's involvement.

    'Everything's Gonna Be Alright' builds a terrific groove which feels like Timbaland's spin on 'Back& Forth'. I'm surprised it did not become more of a hit. I feel like I heard it a few times on the radio back in the nineties.

    'Giving You More' is more of a traditional romance number, with a prominent bottom end that makes its sentiment pretty clear. It's a bit of a surprise for how unsurprising it turns out to be. A good song, but on this album it's rather unadventurous. On the other hand, having such an earnest love song at this point in the track list adds a neat layer of contradiction to its developing thesis on relationships.  I'm probably reading a bit too much into this but almost as important as the songs on an album is the way they are arranged on the track list. By placing this song here, the overriding message seems to be that even with all its potential obstacles (adultery, superficial attraction, dishonesty), love remains a goal worth pursuing. Wow, that was longwinded.

    I will admit to getting a little restless about this point. The album is pretty long (15 songs, excluding the intro and outro), and while it is never boring, it could lose a few tracks.

    'I Gotcha' Back' picks things up with a really dirty groove, and a lyrical throwback to Bill Withers' 'Lean On Me'. It's a neat little number, although a bit short to stick in the brain box. 'Never Givin' Up' is a sweet but slightly rote duet with someone named Tavarius Polk. 'Heartbroken' feels cut from the same clothe as the previous song, but gets more interesting as it goes along (it's another Timbaland-Elloitt joint).

    'Never Comin' Back' is a female empowerment anthem within the structure of a RnB ballad. Instead of the traditional lament, its more focused on solidarity and rising above male BS. It's a neat, off-kilter combination which works a treat.

    'Ladies In Da House' features guest spots from Missy Elliott and Timbaland, but it doesn't quite live up to the pedigree. It's not nearly as good as the collaboration on Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly'Best Friends', but it picks up considerably once Elliott steps in.

    In a complete break with the rest of the album, closing track 'The One I Gave My Heart To' is a ballad written by Diane Warren (responsible for every mawkish hit song in the last thirty years), which probably tells you everything you need to know. Sounding nothing like anything else on the album, the power ballad is a perfectly routine example of a Diane Warren top ten hit (which it was). It's pretty sugary and super nineties -- in short, a bit rubbish. It's not a fatal blow though -- this album is still terrific, and Aaliyah does a good job selling the lyrics.

    Wow.  This album is awesome. I'm a bit bummed that it took me this long to listen to it. I've gone on a bit, so I'll put a pin in it here. One In A Million is a great record, and helped to show that Aaliyah was not going to be a flash in the pan.

    Aaliyah (2001)
    Postponed while she starred opposite Jet Li in the action flick Romeo Must Die, Aaliyah released this album only a few months before her death. Re-teaming with Timbaland and Missy Elliott (augmented by several other collaborators), Aaliyah's third album marked another development in scope and style for the young singer. Sadly, it would turn out to be her last.

    Just as its predecessor had done for her debut, Aaliyah breaks with the style of One in a Million. The style here is not that dissimilar to its predecessor, but it is more overtly  experimental in its overall aesthetic and more adult in content. Between the releases of her last two albums, Aaliyah had gone from teenager to young adult, and this album acted as a statement of this new maturity -- this growth was even reflected in the cover art. Whereas these earlier images presented the starlet as a cool but remote figure (emphasised by the heavy clothes and dark sunglasses), for her third album Aaliyah is foregrounded, dressed in a halter neck and staring straight out at the viewer. There is a confidence here that was not present before, and that is backed up by the music.

    'We Need A Resolution' starts things off on a high note. Considering the five year break, it gets the listener onside with a slightly updated take on the hip hop-electronic soundscapes of her previous album. It's a decent song, though not as memorable as the songs which immediately follow it. For some reason the powers-that-be felt this song should be the first single. It did not work, and Aaliyah was in the middle of prepping 'Rock the Boat' and 'More Than A Woman' as follow-ups when she died.

    A spacey mix of dub and EDM(?), 'Loose Rap' is a fun duet with Static Major. Static had become one of Aaliyah's major collaborators in the years since One in a Million, writing her hit singles 'Are You That Somebody' and 'Try Again' (her only number one on the Billboard Hot 100).

    A prime slice of millennial funk, 'Rock the Boat' rocks a pretty strong beat and catchy melody. It is also an example of the way Aaliyah managed to handle 'sexy' songs with that unique sense of grace and earnestness that had blunted and smoothed out the OTT lasciviousness of her debut. It helps that Static's lyrics manage to undersell the song's intent in a way that suits the singer. This song is where I really start to miss the music we never got to hear in the 16 years since 2001.

    'More Than A Woman' starts out sounding like the opening music to an eighties arcade game and then builds on a very hip hop-like rhythm into something more interesting. So much of what makes the sound on this record so immersive is how delicate the production is. The beats are not cranked up, and everything is mixed so that all the various components (vocals, instruments and synths) can breath. It results in a sound that feels out of time.

    'Never No More' is fine, although not nearly as memorable as the preceding tracks. It is noteworthy for the way it uses gospel-like backing vocals to create  a call-and-response over the chorus. It felt very reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's work from the seventies.

    Marked by variety of different percussive elements, 'I Care 4 U' feels like it could fit right at home in  today's dubstep-obsessed market.  'Extra Smooth' is also idiosyncratic, although the heavier reliance on a groove makes it one of the more danceable tracks. Compare it with 1994's 'Back & Forth' and you realise how far Aaliyah's music had come in less than a decade.

    'Read Between The Lines' and 'U Got Nerve' kinda blend together for me. Like the rest of the songs on the album, they combine RnB with a hip hop flavour, but they lack that special something, the catchiness and sense of experimentation that the other songs have. Speaking of which...

    'I Refuse' is delightfully eccentric. It's a weird anthem-ballad combo in which a woman refuses to continue in a toxic romance. Starting with the sounds of galloping horses, rain and cannons, and then a piano solo, producer J. Dub slowly adds new elements -- an electric guitar, a string section -- as the singer's resolve hardens.

    'It's Whatever' is dreamy electronica with elements of dubstep -- it sounds like a futuristic homage to Gaye's 'Flying High (In The Friendly Sky)'. It also sounds A LOT like that new RnB trio King who have been gaining heat the last couple of years -- I'm not saying they are influenced by Aaliyah, or this song in particular, I'm just running out of adjectives.

    'I Can Be' is a funky little number featuring plenty of distorted guitar, heavily synthesised beats and fragmented vocal loops. The guitar follows Aaliyah's voice so closely that they start to bleed together. It makes it a little hard to follow what she's saying, but it is rather fun to listen to. If Zapp decided to cover Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, you get the general idea.

    The odd grooves continue with 'Those Were The Days', a catchy song that could almost work as a dance track. It's too brittle to really get the pulse racing, but its idiosyncratic rhythm and percussive elements make it one of the more memorable of the album's deep cuts.  

    If I could use one word to describe 'What If', it would be busy. A heavy industrial beat is combined with wailing guitar and odd synth shrieks. Chuck in a repetitive secondary beat, Aaliyah's multi-tracked vocals PLUS a female backing chorus and you have an aural smorgasbord. Somehow all these elements work in sync with one another. It's not the best track on the album, but it's fun.

     The deluxe edition ends with 'Try Again', her hit single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. Considering the song's sentiment it is a bittersweet finale.

    Overall, this is probably Aaliyah's most fully realised album. The fact that her most adventurous album turned out to be her last is a real shame. If you want to check out one Aaliyah album, make it this one.

    Best of the rest
    Aaliyah released some strong non-album singles. The best of the bunch are 'Are You That Somebody' off the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dr. Doolittle, and the aforementioned 'Try Again'.

    'Are You That Somebody?' was Aaliyah's first big hit after One in a Million. Produced by Timbaland, it was also her first song written by Static Major, and continued her transition from the simple pop of her debut toward the more experimental hiphop-inflected songs on her third album.

    The song grooves along to a borrowed guitar line (from the 1982 song 'You're The One For Me') and, bizarrely, a baby's cooing(?), along with a melange of beats and loops, all held together by Aaliyah's vocal.

    'Try Again', the only one of Aaliyah's songs to hit Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100, became one of her signature songs. It certainly did better than the movie it accompanied.

    A sparse blend of hip hop and electronica, 'Try Again' proves just how good Timbaland is at making a lot of very little. You think of the hit pop-busters of this era (ArmageddonTitanicMen In Black) and it is comical how little 'Try Again' resembles these songs.
      A memorable song that remains one of Aaliyah's best. The rest of her tracks on the soundtrack ('I Don't Wanna', 'Come Back In One Piece' and 'Are You Feelin' Me?') are pretty good as well.

      I also have a soft spot for 'Journey to the Past', which Aaliyah covered for the end credits of the animated movie Anastasia (1997). It's basically following the Disney formula of taking the movie's big musical number and releasing it as an RnB single. It's a good song, and while people generally consider the movie version to be superior, I like this take.

      Final thoughts
      The reason why I started this blog was partially for my own enjoyment, partially as an outlet for my mental ramblings, and partially as a catalyst to force me to watch, listen and read more things.

      I had only heard a few Aaliyah songs before writing this massive tome, so it was a fun dive into something new and exciting. It helped that the music was so good. Generally my musical taste skews a bit older than the nineties. I guess since it was the time when I was growing up, there's something overly familiar about the sounds of that time that has kept me from digging into it.

      I think listening to these albums has really helped break down that mental barrier, and I'm looking forward to what else I can find.

      To listen to Aaliyah's music is somewhat melancholy. Listening to her albums a few times, back to back, you genuinely get a sense of progression and growth. Even if she did not write or produce her own music, Aaliyah had an aural signature and style that were only encouraged by her collaborators. The fact that she was willing to step outside of the box R Kelly had put her in is a testament to her own taste, talents, and willingness to challenge herself.

      And while it's been nearly twenty years since her death, while listening to her music I could not help wondering what that time could have been like if she'd had a chance to keep going. It's weird to feel nostalgic for someone you have no ties to, but I have to say it was a bit of a bummer when 'Try Again' finished and I remembered that was the end.

      Ah well. No point in navel gazing. Aaliyah is one of the most influential singers of the last 25 years. If you want to know where Destiny's Child and Beyonce's whole career comes from, start here.

      Previous reviews





      1. It was a trendsetter for TLC even though TLC had an album and hit songs before 1994? Haha.

        1. Ugh, I knew I got the timeline mixed up. Thanks for pointing it out