Aaliya

The first of Aaliyah's three studio albums is a tease, an outlier and, above all, an annunciation. The rising R&B star was just 15 years old at the time of its 1994 release, and thanks to the risqué title and sultry way she sings these dozen songs, she manages to transcend spotty material and introduce herself as a mysterious harbinger of pop's future. Who is this Detroit girl with the sexy hip-hop swagger, and what’s going on behind those dark shades?

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Aaliyah never really answered those questions. She remained fairly mysterious right up until her untimely death in 2001, and on this album—released 20-years ago on Saturday (May 24)—the personality that shines through most is that of R. Kelly. Then an up-and-comer himself, R. Kelly wrote and produced the bulk of the record, and his well-documented romantic relationship with Aaliyah amounts to a giant bold-faced, underscored asterisk that cannot be erased. The two were briefly married, and amazingly enough, the illegal union—quickly annulled and denied by both parties—did little to taint Aaliyah's image or prevent her from becoming a reliable '90s hitmaker with viable sidelines in movies and modeling.

One reason she sustained such a long career is that her next album, 1996's "One In a Million," made good on all the promises of innovation R. Kelly makes here. Featuring the songwriting and production skills of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Aaliyah’s sophomore LP introduced a whole new sound—a kind of chassis-rattling sex music from another planet. So wonderfully wiggy were the beats and synths that the songs needed only modest vocal accompaniment, and for all of her sexiness, Aaliyah was a most modest diva.
 
But neither "One In a Million" nor Aaliyah's self-titled swan song would have been possible without "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number"—a pleasant-enough listen that talks a big game and delivers about half of the time. Read on to get our track-by-track take on this quasi-classic, opening salvo from an artist whose influence has only grown in the nearly 13-years since her death. Everyone from Drake to the xx love her, and this is the record that kick-started the infatuation.

"Intro": Before the music kicks in, a quick a cappella public service announcement: "Listen to instructions carefully / While bumping this album in your jeeps / Aaliyah’s got a '90s swing / So be careful with the volume, please." In ’94, music this funky and fresh begged to be played as loud as a mo-fo, but R. Kelly and Aaliyah had our safety in mind.

"Throw Your Hands Up": Toward the end, Aaliyah says this song is "strictly for the jeeps," and the smooved-out G-funk groove certainly makes this a cruiser fave. The track before this is called "Intro," but really, this is her statement of purpose: a rap-soul resume summary on which she tells us she's "straight from the streets" with a "touch of jazz" in her. It's pure '94—just like that condom-repping line that hype-woman Tia Hawkins drops about throwing your hands up "if you're protected." Whether we're talking sex or driving, safety first.

"Back & Forth": It doesn't matter that Aaliyah is 15. It’s the freakin' weekend, baby, so she's picking up her ladies—presumably in her jeep—and hitting the local party spot. As he does through the album, Kelly serves up some sweet thuggy soul, and our girl sells her breakthrough single—an R&B chart-topper that reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100—with a subtle, laid-back vocal. She also teaches us how to spell her name, though by dropping the first two letters—"Ooh, it’s the L-i-y-a-h"—she makes things a little confusing. Then, she was an enigma.

"Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number": In light of what went down between 'Liyah and Kells, our girl deserves mad props for pulling this one off. She sings it not like a love-struck teenager but rather a poised young woman mature enough to handle a relationship with an older man. She was an old soul from the start, and here, there's none of the Lolita vibe that Britney and Christina would depend on later in the decade.

"Down With the Clique": Aaliyah sounds slightly unnatural singing lines like, "I guess it's time for me to wreck shop," and it's obvious Kelly is trying to mold her into a female version of himself. Still, there's something almost adorable about how fully she commits to the junior-gangsta persona, and her silky cooing is always a good fit for a sturdy hip-hop beat.

"At Your Best (You Are Love)": This Isley Brothers cover couldn't sound more out of place in the middle of this album. It's a straight-up vintage soul ballad completely devoid of that "'90s swing" mentioned at the outset, and while it shows Aaliyah's roots and gives her a chance to ditch the tough-girl posturing, it runs long at 4:51.

"No One Knows How to Love Me Quite Like You Do": As Aaliyah sings about being sexually satisfied and made to feel like a goddess, Kelly raps, "Liyah, you're the only one for me." Evidently, neither the label nor the singer’s family thought any of this was problematic, so it’s best to not dwell on the back-story. When it does start to feel icky, Hawkins is there for comic relief, telling us Kells is "spitting tracks as if it were tobacco." Actually, that’s kind of gross, too.

"I'm So Into You”: This filler track functions much like the one that came before, only there's a line about pagers, so it gets bonus points for wearing its '90s-ness like a Starter cap or a pair of single-strap overalls. Once again, Hawkins is a welcome presence, as her squawky flow contrast with 'Liyah’s hypnotic singing and makes you forget this is a song of seduction penned by a 27-year-old man for a girl not yet old enough to drive.

"Street Thing": If not for the word "street," this would be a pretty standard slow jam—one of those "highest mountain," "deepest sea" tunes about being hopelessly devoted to another person. It's 98 percent classy—Anita Baker with a barely discernible gangsta lean.

"Young Nation": At this point, Kelly is out of ideas, musically speaking, and the only shake-up in the lyrics department has to do with Aaliyah’s slightly wider focus. Instead of declaring herself as the savior of '90s R&B, she aligns herself with an entire movement—a generation of funky, jazzy young peeps who just wanna blast Isleys records and booty-call each other.

"Old School": Has R. Kelly mentioned that he and Aaliyah are reinventing R&B for the '90s? Well they are, and this is yet another self-referential jam about their process. "Here's the old school / With the new school," goes the opening – and that's pretty much what Kells gives us, though this one feels like it's built from scraps of other tunes. In this new-old school, copying is okay, provided you're cribbing from your own work.

"I'm Down": On the strength of its melody, this mid-tempo number ends the disc on a relative high note, even if it's just another boilerplate rap-soul ballad about one person giving themselves fully to another. Again, best to ignore who specifically those people are and just nod your head to the beat.

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