Jan. 16 is always bittersweet. Aaliyah would’ve turned 36 years old today.
The sweet part about this day every year is that it gives fans a chance to celebrate the work and legacy that Aailyah left behind — from her first appearance on Star Search to her final self-titled opus. Her small discography is strong, and there isn’t a single weak album in her set. But as consistent as she’s been, there are very clear frontrunners in listing her greatest songs. They not only epitomize Aaliyah’s image — one that’s so personal to many, yet mysterious — but they tapped into the unseen potential of R&B. It’s the reason why her tracks are replay-able more than a decade later.
Read up and revisit Aaliyah’s 10 greatest songs, and tell us what you think about the selections below.
“Are You That Somebody?” (Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack, 1998): How crazy does this sound?: The Princess of R&B’s best song— one of the greatest of the decade — wound up on a soundtrack to an Eddie Murphy family film. It’s the year when Aaliyah’s longtime producer Timbaland started perfecting his idiosyncratic ambitions, and the song only benefitted from the experimentation.
His production includes (but is not limited to) the head-bobbing funk riff, the synth that manages to wrap itself around it, the random but well-fitting choir that found its way on here by happenstance and that baby. Who can forget the cooing baby? On the other hand, there’s Aaliyah displaying what makes her persona so compelling— that sleek combination of sensuality and mystique. She’s been watching you, yet she still wants to know are you that somebody? And she asks this with an angelic lilt that pulls you into this maze without objection. Just like that, you’re listening to a classic. “Are You That Somebody” finds Timbaland and Aaliyah working together in a capacity that’s almost like an act of kismet. Even Timbaland’s rap is endearing here. Aaliyah’s One in a Million was a classic, but “Are You That Somebody?” hinted at even greater things.
“We Need A Resolution” (Aaliyah, 2001): Timbaland and Aaliyah sonically visualized a futuristic, yet romantically stressed metropolis again on “We Need A Resolution.” This one wasn’t as game changing as “Are You That Somebody?,” but it’s still an all-decade hit. While the 1998 jam surprised with its warmth, “We Need a Resolution” enticed with its iciness. Ch-ch-ch…ch-ah-ah. Aaliyah was always excellent simply gracing and floating over such soundscapes. She’s more amorphous here, flipping from barbed interrogation to the divine layered vocals that lead into Timbaland’s instantly quotable verse (“Girl, hollllaaaaaa”). This is how you kick off one of the millennium’s best R&B albums.
“Rock The Boat” (Aaliyah, 2001): This song has a bittersweet feeling for many— it’s video is the last Aaliyah shot before dying in a plane crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001. But take “Rock The Boat” by itself and you have a track that just oozes with control and finesse. Aaliyah’s final album saw a synergy with Timbaland that created their most fully realized body of work. “Aaliyah the Artist” was on full display, but “Rock The Boat” was a needed sidestep for “Aaliyah the Woman” — where she was free to express her instantly gratifying desires. It’s humanistic but still majestic, and that’s symbolized at the video’s end, where the princess rises out of our reach.
“Try Again” (Romeo Must Die, 2000): If it wasn’t clear before, “Try Again” was another example of Timbaland Aaliyah’s great partnership. Timbaland gives the Princess of R&B a curveball— a fuzzy riff courtesy of acid house. Aaliyah is at ease here, and the playfulness comes naturally, from the coy bridge to the possibility of a second date. This is far deeper than the old college try.
“If Your Girl Only Knew” (One in a Million, 1996): Beneath the mystique was the style. One of the many joys of “If Your Girl Only Knew” lies within the video. You have the flyest group in this exotic club — including Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Timbaland — but Aaliyah still somehow owns the place with those shades and that dark leather outfit. She was the “It” girl before she turned 18. Timbaland could’ve easily stayed comfortably within Aaliyah’s lush performance, but we end up with something more transformative. Little add-ons like the wah-wah effect and constantly tweaked riffs turn this from a reliable club banger into something more elating. Like the infidelity at the center of this song, there was a major shakeup on the way thanks to this duo.
“4 Page Letter” (One In A Million, 1996): “Yo, turn my music up,” Aaliyah commands at the start of the track. It adds another level of intimacy and directness to one of Baby Girl’s more atmospheric songs. Aaliyah plays the shy type — hence the four-page letter — but the desires are articulated clearly as the coos swirl in the background. There are better songs on this list, but few contain moments as dulcet as the multi-track harmonizing on this bridge.
“I Care 4 U” (Aaliyah, 2001): Aaliyah also did blues right. She’s never been known to have a particularly wide vocal range, but she is still a maximalist. That skill is front and center here as Timbaland lies in the background with bleary keys and distant beatboxing. Aaliyah convincingly walks the line between melancholy and optimism. Above all, she resonates as she attempts to relate to the heartbroken man here. She’s domineering on many tracks in Aaliyah, but sometimes it rains.
“Come Over” (I Care 4 U, 2003): This would’ve been an easily accessible sensual jam in the vein of “Rock The Boat” if Aaliyah was still alive at its release. Her performance is just as sweet and tender as ever, and it becomes an aural aphrodisiac when paired with the acoustic guitar. But there’s a posthumous sadness that reveals itself. Not only is there a call for human touch, but what follows is a sense of finally. To touch, and to live, is a blessing. The passions within this song combined with the context is a reminder of the ephemeralness of that ability.
“More Than a Woman” (Aaliyah, 2001): “More Than A Woman” more or less succinctly synopsizes Aaliyah’s appeal: that combination of autonomy and grace, the pure star power, the versatility. There’s passion at the center of those attributes. The oddity here is she feels omnipresent despite displaying what’s a human trait. That’s thanks, in part, to the ghostly after-effects over another busy Timbaland production. It’s one of Aaliyah’s most thrilling efforts, and 13 years later, it sticks.
“Back & Forth” (Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, 1994): How many people thought Aaliyah was going to have a Top 10 single five years after her appearance on Star Search. From the sound of “Back & Forth,” Aaliyah was certainly one of them. The concept of dancing the night away certainly wasn’t new in 1994, but there was certainly room for perfection. With the Public Announcement, R. Kelly forced club starters’ hooks into listeners’ heads through vocal power. That style is again present here; it’s hard not to want to chant “Back back/ forth and forth” back at Aaliyah. And you’re very aware you’re shouting it back at Aaliyah — the future star — here instead of the man in the background.
Brian Josephs writes, frolics and cavorts in East Flatbush, N.Y. He tweets here.
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