15 Years Later: Aaliyah’s Last Album Is An Underrated R&B Masterpiece

It was a Mic.com article that reminded me that Aaliyah‘s last album, Aaliyah, was released fifteen years ago, on July 7, 2001. I became a mixed bag of emotions reading the headline. I felt mainly happiness because the album is one of my all-time favorites. But also, a tide of sadness. Who knew, back then, it would be her last released while still alive.

I wanted the album from the jump and I immediately bought a copy the day after cable news confirmed she and eight other passengers had tragically died in a plane crash. It was specifically a small jet that was meant to bring Aaliyah and her crew from the Bahamas to America, after having wrapped the video for her single “Rock The Boat.” The aircraft crashed in the marshlands of the Bahamas just minutes after take off. Investigations later unearthed that the pilot had alcohol and cocaine in his system and the plane was overloaded with luggage. (Truthfully, I don’t even like to listen to or watch the video for “Rock the Boat” because it prods me to think of her demise).

I remember the awful news. It was on CNN Headline News that I read the small print in the ongoing breaking news bar below. I collapsed into tears and my mother came and consoled me. I had already alerted her that the rumor was out. My grade school best friend at the time had told me over the phone, around 9AM that Sunday morning. This kind of shattering news was a big deal to us. Aaliyah was a part of our ’90s kid memories. We jammed to her first single “Back and Forth.” Witnessed her bad ass, leather clad, Veronica Lake hair styled transformation during the One In A Million era (oh, the many times we quoted the “4 Page Letter”chorus). And lived for “Are You That Somebody?” off of the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. The track was deservedly inescapable in the summer of 1998 and its music video, one of the best of the decade. She had another hit in 2000 with “Try Again” and scored a surprising MTV Video Music Award win for Best Female Video, beating out teen queens of the year Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

aaliyah

Aaliyah’s death alarmed me. She was only 22 years old.

When I first heard Aaliyah, I knew it was special and fantastic. I hadn’t heard R&B so futuristic and there was nothing screwball about it. It felt natural and innovative. This was the same album that Aaliyah had hoped to get Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) to collaborate on. Reznor was reportedly game to do so. But she later disclosed that scheduling conflicts were the blame for his non-existence in the production. I for one remain miffed that the collaboration never happened. Aaliyah and NIN? The potential for amazing still feels huge. It’s basically the equivalent of what could’ve been if Prince had agreed to duet with Michael Jackson for the latter’s 1987 single “Bad.”

But the influence of Nine Inch Nails is evident on Aaliyah. Cue the ending tracks “What If” and “Messed Up” that contain a heavy dosage of industrial rock-type backbeats.

Aaliyah is a remarkably sewn quilt of distinct patches of slick R&B (“More Than A Woman”, “Those Were The Days”), balladry (the plush and shockingly sexy “I Care 4 U”, and “I Refuse”), flamenco (“Read Between the Lines”), hip-hop (“We Need A Resolution”) and sharp rock (“I Can Be”).

As concise as 1996’s One In A Million was, it didn’t waver from standard, contemporary rhythm and blues composition. After a few tracks (sixteen total), the songs coalesced (though we can give an amen for the jazz blessed “Choosey Lover.”) On Aaliyah, each track feels like a performance, an Act II or Act V, as the usually mysterious singer took on different personalities, or better yet, delivered the many provocative growing pains a young woman is capable of experiencing. Remember, Aaliyah was only 22 years old, possibly 21 while in the studio, and conveyed some tough emotional matters. Like on “Never No More”, she tackled domestic abuse. The lyrics trailed the downfall of a relationship. Aaliyah warned that if the disrespect continued, physical and otherwise, that she would have no choice but to leave her partner for good. Repeating the phrase in between verses, “Never No More” may be the most stunning and startling moment of the album as it was also the barest she was vocally and musically. Her tone was tired but brave.

I Didn’t Sleep That Night
I Held My Pillow Tight
Now Trust Me When I Say
You Have Been Told
I’m Telling You Never To Touch Me No More
Never No More

As this retrospective was jotted down on a keypad, the album replayed in the background. “I Refuse” inaugurated and I thought of all the albums and artists Aaliyah had influenced, effortlessly and (in)directly: The Weeknd, FKA Twigs, Kelela, Beyonce‘s Beyonce, Brandy’s Afrodiasic, and Rihanna’s Rated R. If Aaliyah had been released in 2015 or 2016, I would hope that critics would’ve still recognized its genius (Rolling Stone, TIME and many publications originally raved with four-star reviews). It probably would’ve also been quickly categorized as “alternative R&B” or more annoyingly “PR&B” (as in PBR beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon).

In 2001, critics and fans that heard the album early weren’t sure of how to classify it. It was R&B. But it also showcased the trajectory of where the genre could go. Beyond the beloved archetype of our parents’ vinyls. That is why Aaliyah stood out and still does so greatly. No team of singers, producers, and songwriters were making R&B music like track seven “Extra Smooth.”

In light of its legacy, and being that I was fourteen then (wow, I was?!) and at the edge of my late twenties now, I see that on the surface, I took the subjects and her artistic growth seriously and sometimes excitedly. In 2016, I treasure the album on a largely personal level. It explored what it truly meant to become (more than) a woman. The glorious moments in which your wit, confidence, sexuality and sensuality collide and you didn’t even know you had such power. And the undersides of which coddling a bad situation, fed up with the bullshit, nostalgic about the past, or simply being human and not yet knowing better feel so irrevocably terrible or sad, you wonder just how many times can a heart burst. No stage is forgotten and are fully represented on Aaliyah.  Her last album, appropriately self-titled, was the promulgation of an artist that could tell a full-scale story.

The album is frustratingly out of print as the record label she was on, Blackground Records, went bankrupt years ago. It can be found today online by re-sellers.

I plucked out my physical compact disc copy shortly after writing the first full draft of this tribute. It currently stands against the vinyls of my Sade‘s Promise and Diamond Life.

Since her death, the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised singer is most commemorated for her style. It continues to inspire the social media generation that were born while I was breaking into sweats practicing the choreography of her biggest hits. But Aaliyah’s music should be equally as worthy of observation. Her last album remains one of the great R&B masterpieces of the 21st century. A true new classic in every sense in which an album can be.

aaliyah

(An album of a few previously unreleased tracks with her biggest hits was released in 2003 via I Care 4 U and the song “Steady Ground.” And her voice is still used posthumously from time to time, like on tracks “Enough Said” with Drake and “They Don’t Know” featuring Chris Brown.)

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