“It ain’t just rhythm and blues,” Aaliyah coos on “Loose Rap,” the fan-favorite cut from her self-titled album. After emerging in 1994 with her platinum-selling debut Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number and establishing herself as R&B’s newest star on 1996’s One In A Million, it was clear the singer was hungry to explore beyond the genre’s shores. Within the five years between her second album and 2001’s Aaliyah (which celebrated its 20th anniversary on July 7), Aaliyah untied herself from the predatory shackles of previous mentor/producer/alleged beau R. Kelly as well as R&B’s predictable trends at the time.
Aaliyah was blossoming into her womanhood: she graduated from high school in 1997, became the youngest singer to perform at the Oscars with Anastasia’s “Journey To The Past” the following year, earned her first Grammy nomination with the hit single “Are You That Somebody?” from the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, and scored her first acting role in 1999’s box office smash Romeo Must Die (which bred the Grammy-nominated “Try Again” single). All of these experiences signaled a maturity in the singer, which was reflected best on her final album.
“I wanted to do that because my name is Arabic and it has a beautiful meaning: ‘The highest and most exalted one, the best,’” Aaliyah said of her decision on the album’s title. “And I wanted the name to really carry the project. It’s different from the last LPs because I’m older, I’m more mature and I think that’s very evident on the album. So it really showcases Aaliyah and who she is right now”.
Aaliyah bridged the gap between the sweet girl-next-door personality she established with One In A Million and a yearning to get more experimental. She relied a little less on her “Supafriends” Missy Elliott and Timbaland — though Static Major from R&B group Playa played an integral role in writing nearly all the songs — who previously helped solidify her sound, and brought in an array of producers signed to her uncle Barry Hankerson’s Blackground record label. The end result? A genre-defining album that looks towards the future of R&B and hip-hop while also embracing the traditional elements of soul and funk.
Aaliyah wasn’t branded as a concept album, but the 14-song collection read like chapters of a dark romance novel, dissecting every stage of a relationship that’s on the verge of crumbling. The initial talking stages are found in “Loose Rap” and “Extra Smooth.” The shadowy production of the former finds Aaliyah bored of men who can’t back up their sh*t-talking, while latter’s heavy and in-your-face bassline mimics the singer’s grumbling (and often-overlooked lower register.
Then comes the growing conflict, which is first introduced by lead single “We Need A Resolution.” One of the few songs produced by Timbaland on Aaliyah, the singer confronts her partner’s laziness atop a snake-charming melody. “That song speaks about a relationship that’s kind of in the middle, it’s not either-or really,” Aaliyah explained at the time of the single’s release. “It’s just at a point where they’re not communicating, they have problems and they want to resolve them. Not all the time do you come to a resolution. At the end of the song, they don’t really resolve anything and that happens in life.”
The issues continue with the Latin-inspired “Read Between The Lines,” the track “Those Were The Days” that reminisces over the playful puppy love stage that’s now been tainted (“You don’t touch no more, give me chills no more / We don’t go out no more”), and the frustration-led “U Got Nerve.” “My own blindness cause my sadness / No longer am I a slave over your madness,” Aaliyah grits through her teeth, ready to kick her cheating man to the curb.
The singer’s growing maturity is found in the cinematic “I Refuse” and “Never No More,” whose themes tackle pain and trauma. “With [‘Never No More’] being about abuse, I wanted you to feel that musically and hear the emotions,” producer Bud’da explained in 2016. “I wish everybody could’ve seen the emotions as well. There’s so many people quietly dealing with abuse and it’s just an unheard thing. I thought it was pretty upfront for that song and it was bold on her part to do it knowing that she has a great influence.”
Aaliyah continues down a winding road of forgiveness (the tender “I Care 4 U” that was originally recorded for One In A Million), being the other woman (“I Can Be”), and sheer wrath (“What If”) whose intense industrial guitar licks teased what could have been if Aaliyah’s wish to work with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor was granted.
But Aaliyah is not all strife. There is bliss found on the lively “More Than A Woman” single, the breezy charm of “It’s Whatever,” and “Rock The Boat,” whose heavenly nature is unfortunately enveloped in tragedy as the video shoot preceded the singer’s death in August 2001.
“‘Rock The Boat’ hit her real hard,” co-writer/co-producer Rapture Stewart told Fuse in 2016. “She was the one advocating to make that a single, because [the label] was trying to make sure whatever Timbaland produced were up to be singles. But she gave them hell and refused to let them do things. Even Timbaland loved it.”
The autonomy that threads Aaliyah was a refreshing take on neo-soul that cut through the bubblegum pop at the time, but it also gave the world insight into the singer’s impending takeover. Upon the album’s release, she was on the brink of being a major triple-threat entertainer as seen with the posthumous release of Queen of the Damned and being cast in The Matrix Reloaded (the role was later given to Nona Gaye).
To say that Aaliyah was ahead of her time would be an understatement. You can hear it in the delicately stacked harmonies of Solange, Syd, and Snoh Aalegra. You see it in the effortless dance moves and wispy come-ons of Ciara, Normani, and Tinashe. It’s there in FKA Twigs and Kelela’s Afro-futuristic visuals, Rihanna’s lyrical vulnerability and too-cool sense of style, and TikTok’s current Y2K fashion obsession.
It’s hard to miss in Noah “40” Shebib’s murky production he’s provided for Drake over the past decade, mimicking Aaliyah’s in-studio relationship with Timbaland and other Aaliyah producers (Drake’s idea for a posthumous Aaliyah album was shelved in 2014). And it’s found in endless tributes, from The Weeknd’s sampling of “Rock The Boat” on House Of Balloons’ “What You Need,” Chris Brown borrowing her vocals for 2013’s “Don’t Think They Know,” and covers of “At Your Best (You Are Love)” by Frank Ocean and Sinéad Harnett. Her post-R&B influence even bled into the works of indie acts like The xx and Arctic Monkeys.
Aaliyah is also remembered for its iconic sienna-red hue, a color that signifies either a sonic or personal shift for R&B artists throughout the decades. Landmark examples include Janet Jackson’s Control and The Velvet Rope, TLC’s CrazySexyCool, Xscape’s Traces Of My Lipstick, Rihanna’s Loud and ANTI, Toni Braxton’s The Heat, Usher’s 8701, Kelela’s Take Me Apart, and Tamar Braxton’s Love & War.
But unlike these albums, Aaliyah’s final offering and One In A Million aren’t available for streaming (the R. Kelly-touted Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number casts an uncomfortable shadow on said platforms). It’s been a long-discussed topic on when her estate will finally resolve the issue (which they teased last August). The longer they wait, the longer Aaliyah’s legacy is hindered for the new generation’s discovery. But the red light of Aaliyah, and all her other beloved music, glows too brightly for the fallen angel to ever be forgotten.