Unforgettable, Vol. 7: Aaliyah – Aaliyah

Pop Culture, Soundtrek


Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, gettin’ down ain’t nothin but a thang;

so simple, so straight-forward, so smooth – so very extra smooth. At 14, Aaliyah set the foundation for a theme that would resonate through her career. Aaliyah was (forgive the overused terminology, but) subterranean silk sleeper swag: well-versed within the R&B/Hip-Hop arenas – though never breaking to Beyonce or Alicia Keys status (which added to her persona – she wasn’t a diva, she was fierce just being Babygirl), enlisting on the likes of two unknowns: Missy Elliott and Tim Mosely (Google them, I think they’ve got some independent tracks on YouTube) after working with the 90s R&B staple, R. Kelly, smooth vocals – not overbearing but instrumental in her signature harmonies – and so incredibly laid back in a take-it-or-leave-it way.

Her classic “street but sweet” aura personified the era of urban contemporary music. Forever under the lingering shadow of controversial marriage rumors, her age was nothin’ but a number indeed; and forever in the midst of an unfaltering ability to effortlessly exude – and be the essence of – urban contemporary culture meant gettin’ down (and making music for you to get down to) was nothin’ but a thang.

Aaliyah came 5 years after One in a Million and stood as proof of Aaliyah’s musical mettle (completely: innate gift for fusing producers, fashion, mentality, figures, lyrics: sounds, sights, and sources at the core of urban America). While she reflected the mode du jour with Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number, and One in a Million; she pushed the boundaries and set the standard for the future of her environment with the brand new beacon that was Aaliyah.

Her third studio effort brought back her partner in rhyme: Timbaland (before he was “Timbaland”) — the human drum machine, as well as Static Major. Aaliyah, not writing her own material, is a modern urban music icon because of her paramount knack for being the medium: she had the look, but more importantly, she had the deft and voice to get the message across in a way that resonated with the listener better than anyone else. She honed and developed her signature sounds: soft vocalization over hard beats, melancholy delivery and lyrics over uptempo backing, heavy – but smooth – bass underscoring her harmonies, while staccato overlays enhanced the cacophonous mixes. The tonal emphasis of the base dichotomy between soft and hard, apathetically affected.

The first single, “We Need a Resolution” saw Timbaland go hard for his muse – per usual: deep heartbeat-like kick drum, intermitten claps playing off the snare, inhale/exhale undertone like a hi-hat; distorted solo string set underscoring the vocals; low-riding piano clips … all in a constant multi-layered staccato sonicscape — like a running set of mini-chord progressions, with a smattering of Pharrell-esque Moet chimes to boot.

Aaliyah integrated electro-industrial on tracks like “What If,” where the cold robotic synth rides with the hot guitar riffs to accent her cold-as-fire-hot-as-ice

“I hate a lying dude, one who doesn’t know the rules/ If you gon’ cheat burn the receipt from the hotel room/ but instead you’re up in my face saying you were at friends/ but they all call asking me where the Hell you been;”

and setting the standard for the 21st century modern take-no-mess independent woman of tomorrow,

“Why they keep treatin’ us this way? Hot Grits is a new game we’ll play <– yes)/ We’ll burn you (oh), we’ll cut you (oh)/ we’ll kill you (oh), we don’t have to take it no more.”

While “Read Between the Lines” sweltered, incorporating the stop-and-go piano, snare, maracas and horns; it’s what Timbaland’s beats would sound like if they spoke Spanish.

Those Were the Days,” “Loose Rap,” and “U Got Nerve,” found a more mature Aaliyah, with lyrical content that reflects nostalgia and confrontation, but in a way that expressed a conviction not captured when crooning; she is a storytelling songstress because it’s as if she’s melodically speaking to you, not singing at you.

Never No More,” finds Aaliyah coming to terms with an abusive partner, and you feel her confusion. She delivers the lyrics,

“I gave it all to you, with no questions asked/ I wanted a future, who cares about the past,”

before reinforcing the street beneath the sweet – and the difference between “Baby don’t leave, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” bubblegum pop tarts, and: “Boy your best best bet is to leave, because I’ve got grits on the stove/ Better yet, here’s a quarter, I think you better call Tyrone” R&B/Soul singers –

“Never, you know I’d rather give you your space, Cause i just don’t know what to or not to say/ Stay out your way or get in your face, I just know you better not touch me again.”

The subterranean silk sleeper swag comes through best in the bombastic “I Can Be.” Beautiful, minimalistic piano plays off of Aaliyah’s lyrical sighs and echoes before the raw industrial beat drops. Synths and guitars conversing like a 21st century futuristic dialogue between Charlie Brown’s wahh-wahh teacher’s bipolar selves, heavy deliberate bass beneath the precisely calculated snare and rasp of the delayed hi-hat, all building around the airy one minute/definitive the next vocals; all building to a subtly superlative peak before the track cuts.

Aaliyah propelled Aaliyah to the forefront of young hot hip-hop, and for good reason, it was stunningly solid. Bittersweetly, the album cemented Aaliyah’s potential — what she could have been — as it was her last. Years later though, its impact continues to present itself – and with increasing influence – on the current music landscape – strict R&B, as much as mainstream pop. What we heard with Aaliyah was a blueprint for urban contemporary music, a sound and sentiment that goes strong today.

If for no other reason Aaliyah’s current impact rests within the fact that Aaliyah was – now uberproducer – Timbaland’s muse. After she passed though, it seems as if his passion for innovation did as well. Timbaland in 2001 was still relatively unknown within the mainstream. While Aaliyah was here, even if he wasn’t working with her, his sound was still evolving; without that spark and creative catalyst Timbaland’s signature became his pigeonhole. His sound was fresh for Top 40, because they didn’t listen to his past work; but for those who did: Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Keri Hilson, One Republic, Madonna, the list goes on – and on, and on (your postman, cousin, and alderman included) – all got rehashed material.

Aaliyah pushed the boundaries without being overbearing. She effortlessly transitioned into womanhood, embracing her voice, sound, image, essence, and place within the upper echelon of urban culture.

This album is Aaliyah’s legacy. Aaliyah did not burn out, nor overstay her welcome; she left us wanting more. She will always be the voice of young urban culture, her sound is still so twenty-something – so fresh. This album is unforgettable because it is a snapshot of an artist on the brink of stardom; in that ideal place with your current work as your best to date because it is proof of the inevitable growth that lies ahead.

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