Long before the new wave of teenage pop stars, Aaliyah made headlines with her all-too-sophisticated R&B and a sordid romance with R. Kelly. But who could have predicted that the talented young teen would emerge a leading lady of hip-hop by the age of 21? While there’s no doubt that slick production has been key to Aaliyah’s success (courtesy of Kelly, Missy Elliott and Timbaland), the multi-faceted entertainer’s personality glimmers on every track of her self-titled third effort. Mostly coquettish snake-charmer, sometimes scorned lover, Aaliyah almost always recalls Janet (only with slightly better pipes).
Aaliyah is also further testimony to the indelible watermark Janet’s big brother has left on today’s hip-hop artists and producers. With its relentless sci-fi video-game blips and sticatto vocals, “U Got Nerve” is a sharp ode to the Jackson dynasty. Elsewhere, “What If” deftly incorporates industrial-strength guitars and enough pop-drenched angst to make Michael proud. But what sets Aaliyah apart from other artists reared on ’80s retro is that she often does it better. “Rock the Boat” and “It’s Whatever,” though reminiscent of Janet’s sex dramatizations, are more Marvin Gaye than Jackson. Lyrically, Aaliyah’s metaphors are more fully-developed and far sexier: “Like a candy to an apple…You’re so sweet on me.”
Most of Aaliyah traces the slow erosion of relationships, from an overzealous courtship (the key-shifting “Extra Smooth”) to the brilliant first single, “We Need a Resolution.” With a seductive Middle Eastern vibe and a guest rap interlude by Timbaland, “Resolution” maturely presents two perspectives, the yin and yang of passive-aggressive miscommunication. Our female protagonist coyly asks, “Where were you last night,” while a backward loop echoes the sentiment through the end of the song. The ballad “Never No More” is a gem that sustains the classic sound of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. Showcasing a more sultry side to Aaliyah’s voice (not unlike Sade, another confessed influence), the track is old-school soul injected with future hip-hop.
But like she says on “Loose Rap,” “It ain’t just rhythm and blues.” The track is doused with subtle Neptunian electronica and aquatic sounds that gurgle beneath Aaliyah’s distinct velvet harmonies. If the beyond-burgeoning actress was ever approached to play a cartoon superhero, the synth-heavy “More Than a Woman,” with its millenium-ready empowerment and sensitive vocals, would make the perfect theme song for the fictional vixen (“You go, I go/’Cause we share pillows”). From the very first seconds of its sampled cinema, “I Refuse” is steeped in melodrama. A theatrical orchestration of pianos, guitars and strings progressively builds to a dramatic climax with a minimalist percussive backdrop straight out of Björk’s Homogenic.
Timbaland, Aaliyah’s main maestro, is, after all, hip-hop’s Björk and like Elliott’s genre-bending So Addictive, Aaliyah provides a missing link between hip-hop and electronica. The album’s biggest flaw, however, is the absence of a vocal cameo by Elliott (though Timbaland’s unrivaled production skills will make you swear you can hear the rapper’s sly laugh throughout the disc). Following in the footsteps of some of today’s biggest icons, Aaliyah has learned how to align herself with A-list producers without losing her individuality and, instead, makes the sound her own.