Aaliyah's final album revealed her mature self.
Eighteen years ago today, Aaliyah released her final album, Aaliyah. An eponymous title is generally an indication of an incredibly personal work-- a tact that is employed perfectly with Aaliyah. Her final album is, in many ways, an introduction to who Aaliyah truly is. The album cover itself is essentially a face reveal; she still dawned her iconic glasses on her previous album covers. It’s also her first release as a legal adult. Aaliyah is the first album where she has the most creative control of the project. R. Kelly is long gone (thank God), and Timbaland is more collaborator than crutch. Steering the ship, she finds herself taking influence from a vast number of sounds that make up her personal taste in music. She carefully places an 80’s retro sound, modern hip-hop, slices of electronica, and a seasoning of her silky-smooth voice all into a mixer and serves up the perfect blend of each. She even experiments with a subtle pinch of rock which she had hoped would be augmented by a Trent Reznor collaboration that never came to be. Each time she reaches out for cross-genre influence, she always remembers to bring it back home to R&B. The album is a timeless experiment and, in many ways, the first and final time fans get to see the true Aaliyah.
Aaliyah attends the 2000 Teen Choice Awards - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
When Aaliyah hit shelves, it had been five years since One in a Million. She was busy dipping her toes in an acting career that would result in two films, Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned. Many were worried this was taking away from her focus on music and some even argued it would detract from the quality. Her tight schedule conflicting with that of Timbaland’s meant she wouldn’t be able to rely so strongly on his help. The album also suffered a nine-month delay: originally slated to release in October 2000, it would not become available until July of the following year. With all of this mystery, many were nervous the project might be a flop. It wasn’t.
The album opens with “We Need a Resolution,” the type of track where Aaliyah is at her most comfortable: a confident, cool-headed hip-hop/R&B mix but soon, we begin to see a new side of the artist. “Rock the Boat” is Aaliyah at her most outwardly sensual yet. Through heavy use of synths and mesmeric flows, the track transports you to the islands. Lyrically, Aaliyah is in control of the scene she paints. She lets her lover know that she is the priority:
There is something I want you to do
I want you to use yourself (hey!)
Like you never ever used to do before (never!)
To explore my body (explore it baby!)
Until you reach the shore (yeah!)
The theme doesn’t end there. With the very next track, “More than a Woman,” Aaliyah hammers home the idea that she has grown into womanhood. The results are a hook that emphasizes her maturity:
Even more under covers (I'll be)
I'll be more than a lover
More than a woman
More than enough for you (I'll be)
The lyrics, along with a blend of electro-pop and R&B production, helped the song peak the UK charts and crack the top twenty-five on Billboard.
Later on, we’re treated to two of the most interesting songs on the album, “I Can Be,” and “What If.” Here, Aaliyah truly ventures to the extreme ends of her comfort zone. By sampling both Black Sabbath and The Beatles she voyages into a realm of metal and heavy rock that could seemingly never blend with her subtle style; however, Aaliyah returns to her home of R&B triumphant and creates a sonically pleasing amalgamation of all three genres. It’s the greatest testament to her ductility, especially during a time when genre boundaries were not as fluid as they are today. In an interview with E! she commented on her evolution saying “It’s the same Aaliyah from the first album to the second album to now but you feel me as a young adult this time around... I never want to do something that’s so totally different that people are confused.” It’s her willingness to take risks and deviate from the norm, but at the same time, remain true to who she is that sets her apart as an artist.
Fans write notes and leave tributes to Aaliyah on a billboard of the singer's final album on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, CA,2001 - Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
It’s difficult to reflect on this project without remembering that her passing would come just one month after it’s release; however, this reflection isn’t a somber one but a celebratory one. Even while listening to “Rock the Boat,” the song behind the video that inadvertently led to her death, there is an air of appreciation for her greatness. The album acts as a final commemoration of her life. The project is an attestation to the beauty, confidence, and hopefulness that made Aaliyah more than just a woman, but the queen of R&B. While it may be difficult to find, Aaliyah is certainly worth a revisit any day of the year, but today especially.
"Aaliyah" album cover on display at Virgin Megastore in NYC, 2001 - Spencer Platt/Getty Images