Review Summary: It's not her untimely passing that merits a 5, but her newfound womanhood and ability to produce an R&B masterpiece of love and loss that fuses all genres, most notably rock, (and without Timbaland as a main crutch) that makes this album a classic.
It's 2001, and the week Aaliyah's self-titled third album is released, Usher's "U Remind Me" is on top of the charts. The year as a whole, excluding brief stints by Crazy Town and Nickelback, is ruled by R&B stars: Destiny's Child "Independent Women", Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me", and Outkast's "Ms. Jackson" are staple songs of the era, and virtually the rest of the year's Billboard charts are topped by female R&B singers: Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, newly introuduced soulstress Alicia Keys, and the combination of Christina Aguilera, Mya, Lil' Kim, and Pink reintroducing "Lady Marmalade" to the world.
It's easy to see why Aaliyah wouldn't fit.
She'd always been the tomboy of the girl R&B bunch, her signature being her ability to roll with the boys, donning baggy pants and dark sunglasses. This helped her achieve success and separate from the pack, with earlier hits such as "Back and Forth", "One In A Million", and "If Your Girl Only Knew". But sooner than later, we began to see her progression from girl to woman. There was "Are You That Somebody?" a '98 hit which showed her, finally, without the glasses, showing more midriff, and looking like a female. She came back two years later stronger than ever with "Try Again", her first Billboard #1, a far more feminine attempt in both song and dance- there were pants, but she was found sporting nothing but a diamond bra as a top in the dance-oriented video. Standard for some acts, risktaking for a girl who rarely wore anything other than black.
But these were both singles released for movie soundtracks; the latter for Romeo Must Die
, her first attempt at a starring movie role. Aaliyah made her bravest move yet in July of 2001, producing an entire album that did two very risky things: for one, it cut most of her strings to Timbaland, who produced the bulk of her hit singles but only three songs on the album. Second, it displayed her as an entirely different woman than when she first began, certainly more feminine than her premiere identity. For that, Aaliyah
accepted 250,000 first week sales, but a number 2 debut behind Alicia Keys' Songs In A Minor
And then one month later, she died. Just as she was finishing the production of two new music videos, a plane carrying her and eight other passengers including the pilot, crashed, due to the overbearing weight of her video equipment. No one on the plane survived.
Her death was widely mourned. And it's times like this, an unfortunate and untimely passing, that make things like music and video seem completely irrelevant. But on the other hand, Aaliyah's last effort, an album in which she at last came out of her shell and grew into womanhood, should be seen as a testament to her life instead of a precursor to her death.
Through this lens, Aaliyah
shows a new found female showing comfortability in her own skin, and willing to confidently explore that realm: not overdoing it, not stepping into where she doesn't fit, but taking what she has and experimenting as bravely as she can. It's a daring, diverse exploration of a woman going through love, lust, loss, and everything in between, coming out of it that much stronger: boasting self-confidence, maturity, and independence. While not having the pipes of many of her competitors, it bests many efforts of that time and some since then: it's more diverse than Songs In A Minor
but just as emotional; far more experimental and interesting than any of Janet's new millenium attempts; a more genuine effort than Sasha Fierce
or it's counterpart.
The lead single should have been all the incentive needed for the album. "We Need A Resolution" is a timeless hip-hop opera that is an R&B masterpiece on all levels. While Timbaland warns "I'm tired / I'm tired / I'm tired of arguing, girl," the beat ebbs and flows: it's dark, edgy, mysterious, but still retains an unusual bounce to it, while Aaliyah and Timbaland, playing off each other and looking for answers, certainly pose more questions. "Am I supposed to change? Are you supposed to change? Who should be hurt? Will we remain?" she wonders. Timbaland, on the other hand, plays defense: "So what's it gonna be? Me and you? Or is it gonna be 'who blames who?'" The resolution? There never is one: "I'm gonna get me a drink / I'll call you tomorrow," are Tim's last words. But perhaps that's a good thing.
In short, it's different, like much of the album. However, if it's what you're looking for, there are the radio-oriented songs: "Extra Smooth" is a heavily urban one with a message for men: "If I'm supposed to be your boo / Don't come trying to be extra smooth," while "Messed Up", a moodier attempt, flips the switch: after being together, "It's time to cut my dead weight," she proclaims. "Rock The Boat", her first posthumous single, is a sex-kitten tale, but it's gentle and flows breezy. But it's Timbaland also wins in this area: on "More Than A Woman", which followed as a single after, is a perfect mix of midtempo hip-hop and electro-pop where Aaliyah boasts self-confidence in both herself and her guy: "I'll be more than a lover / more than a woman / more than enough for you." But even here, none of the songs are too flashy and grand-scale: Aaliyah's modesty is possibly what's always worked in her favor.
She's even modest while boosting her own ego: On "Loose Rap", an airy echo of a tune, she welcomes all competition: "I know you can come better than that," she says. "It's Whatever" seems to be the one moment on the album where she puts control in the man's hands, on a beautiful yet lightly crafted piano and drum beat. "If's it up to me," she says, "Whatever is whatever / you want it to be."
Then there's points where the modesty fades. Three equally different and incredible ballads accompany the album. There's the slowest of them, "I Care 4 U", a jazzier soulful ballad, on which Aaliyah is sweet and endearing ("Can I comfort you? Let you know I care for you?"). On "Never No More", she stands up to physical abuse, pouring out her heart ("I promised myself you wouldn't put your hands on me again") while still keeping confidence. They're all great, but the standout is "I Refuse", a deeply emotional tale of the refusal to let him in again, beginning with horse-clopping in the rain, leading to a piano ballad which gradually grows mightier, becoming ferociously operatic by it's end.
"Read Between The Lines" as another midtempo comes with a latin vibe where she warns you of a cheating heart, and on "Those Were The Days", she decides to be done with him, though still remembering the good times. They're both exude assertion, but there are certainly moments where the modesty is gone. Specifically, there's "U Got Nerve": over its creepy pitter-patter bass, Aaliyah plays fleeting devil in disguise. The chorus haunts ("Who do you think you... are now?"), while the verses seem to be sung in quick desperate breaths: "Don't make me lose it / I just might lose it."
Then there's points where the modesty is so far gone it's almost unrecognizable: it's here where Aaliyah is so nervously daring, using heavy rock and metal influences on two standout tracks. Aaliyah has been a known rock fan, specifically of Nine Inch Nails, but you'd never expect it to surface in her music. But there it is: "I Can Be" samples both the Beatles and Black Sabbath, and just as surprising is the song's message, where Aaliyah wants
to be the other woman: "I can be / on the side / that'll be allright." On the other end, "What If" is shocking R&B metal: it's electric guitar is dizzying, and the track comes off as a rogue robot factory, while Aaliyah attacks the male-female dual stereotype better than Beyonce ("If I Were A Boy") or Ciara ("Like A Boy") ever could, and it's a hell of a lot more dangerous. Just how dangerous? Quite deathly: "Why they keep treating us this way? / I guess it's a little game we play / We'll play... We'll cut you / We'll kill you."
The first track itself, though it never even hit Billboard's Top 40, is still noteworthy almost eight years later. But that alone doesn't make Aaliyah
the album it is. I daresay no R&B artist then or since, has ever been as bold, mixing hip-hop, rap, R&B, soul, pop, and rock into something quite as brilliant, that stays true to it's original intent but still plays well with other genres so perfectly. No, every single track is not the "perfect" song, but collectively they're all damn close to it, and Aaliyah
is an album that is a classic in message, concept, quality, and timing. If it should be recognized for one thing only, it should be noted for its bravery: where today's popular female artists (and artists in general) tend to stick to a cut-and-paste formula when it comes to music and albums, its made an important mark in the scope of R&B that has rarely seen a proper match.