The ’90s introduced us to a number of talented R&B artists, but few stars shined brighter than Aaliyah Dana Haughton’s.
From the moment she stepped on the scene with her signature bandana and dark shades it was clear that what we were witnessing was something special. Although we lost her in the physical form during that tragic plane crash in 2001, her legacy continues to burn stronger than ever through her catalog of timeless music.
And being that tomorrow, January 16th, would’ve been her 35th birthday, we thought it was only right to present to you the 10 Aaliyah songs everyone should know.
1. “Back And Forth”
Aaliyah arrived on the music scene in 1994 with her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number at the tender age of 15. While the album’s title track is rife with irony due to the alleged illegal marriage between Aaliyah and the Pied Piper, the actual lead single “Back And Forth” would be the song to introduce the world to the Brooklyn born, Detroit bred, beauty. Written and produced by R. Kelly, the song is instantly addictive and gives you no choice but to follow Aaliyah’s command to sway “Back And Forth.”
Spending three weeks at number one on the R&B charts and peaking at number five on the Hot 100, the single was certified gold and was the second biggest R&B single on the end of the year charts. By the end of 1994, everyone knew who the ‘L-I-Y-A-H’ was and a star was born.
2. “At Your Best”
All covers of classic songs aren’t created equal, but Aaliyah’s rendition of The Isley’s “At Your Best” is anything but underwhelming. Serving as the second single from Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, Aaliyah adds a certain vulnerability and innocence to the track with her shy, yet sultry, vocals, effortlessly making it her own.
Climbing all the way to number six on the Hot 100 charts, “At Your Best” remains a fan favorite, even amongst the likes of other transcendent talents like Drake, who sampled her crooning on “Unforgettable” from his own debut album. One of the more endearing performances of her career, Aaliyah was definitely at her best during the process of recording this classic.
3. “If Your Girl Only Knew”
After breaking ties with R. Kelly and Jive, Aaliyah signed with Atlantic Records and began recording her sophomore album, One In A Million. Working with a bevy of up-and-coming producers and songwriters, most notably Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Aaliyah released the album’s first single “If Your Girl Only Knew,” a shot at unfaithful men stepping out on their mates.
Singing with the confidence of a man-eater, she coyly ponders the thought of what her various suitors’ girlfriends would think of their thirsty tactics. Bolstered by a video with cameos including Ginuwine, 702, Lil Kim and others, “If Your Girl Only Knew” reached #11 on the Hot 100 chart and proved that even without the Pied Piper she was still a musical force to be reckoned with.
4. “One In A Million”
One In A Million was a true coming out party for Aaliyah, and the album’s title track was a major indicator of what the songstress had in store. Produced by Timbaland, the beat itself was lauded for its innovative take on the drum-n-bass sound coming out of Europe at the time. Let’s not even speak too much on the video, because as soon as you saw Aaliyah’s gorgeous self lying on top of that car, it was already certified as one of the best of that era. The single became a huge hit on the dance/club charts, topped the R&B charts for six weeks straight, and has become a defining moment in Aaliyah’s career.
P.S. Was I the only one EXTREMELY jealous when they saw Ginuwine reveal his tat of Aaliyah’s name on his arm? Oh, didn’t think so.
5. “4 Page Letter”
“Momma always told me to be careful who I love” are lyrics that were wise beyond Aaliyah’s 17 years when she sang them. While not a traditional smash hit on the Billboard charts, “4 Page Letter” quickly became one of the albums standouts. Co-written by Missy and Timbaland, with Timbo providing yet another infectious beat, this slow burner has Aaliyah penning an audio love letter to a potential lover and further displayed Aaliyah’s growing knack for creating strong contemporary R&B along with the usual party jam.
6. “Are You That Somebody”
Riding high off the success of her smash sophomore effort, Aaliyah was handpicked to contribute a song for the Dr. Dolittle movie soundtrack. The end result was arguably the biggest hit of her career. Co-written by the late Static Major and Timbaland, Aaliyah has her eyes on a certain someone, but is reluctant to make the first move. “Are You That Somebody” was one of the biggest hits of 1998 and a landmark moment for Aaliyah, netting her a Grammy nomination and ending the year with the song’s accompanying video as the third most played clip of the year on MTV. Catchy vocals mixed in with the sound of a baby cooing and a rap by Timbo proved to be the perfect gumbo, as she definitely stirred the pot with this homerun of a song.
7. “Try Again”
In 2001, Aaliyah landed her first major acting gig in a leading role opposite Jet Li in the romantic action flick Romeo Must Die. In addition to entertaining on-screen, the songstress was also tapped to executive produce the film’s soundtrack. Aaliyah contributed four new songs herself, most notably the lead single “Try Again.”
Penned by Static Major and produced by Timbaland, the track saw Aaliyah flip the old virtue of never quitting into a motivational anthem for men and women down on their luck in the dating scene worldwide. The song was a major success on the Billboard charts (becoming the first song to reach number one strictly based off of radio airplay) and the award shows (a nomination for a Grammy, two MTV Music Video Award wins) solidifying Aaliyah’s reputation as one of the top young hit makers in the biz.
8. “Rock The Boat”
Following a five-year hiatus between albums and a successful foray into Tinseltown, Aaliyah returned in 2001 with her much anticipated self-titled album, Aaliyah. While the lead single “We Need A Resolution” was well received, the follow up “Rock The Boat” would ultimately become the more significant hit.
The song was originally written for Aaliyah at least two years prior to its release, but her camp believed she wasn’t ready for the song’s racy undertones at that time in her career and held off on recording it until later. The song displayed Aaliyah’s sensuality with suggestive, yet subtle, lyrics and her trademark seductive voice.
Unfortunately, “Rock The Boat” will forever remain a bittersweet moment in Aaliyah’s career, as she passed away in a plane crash after filming the accompanying music video in the Bahamas.
9. “Come Over”
Atlantic Records and Blackground released a compilation titled I Care 4 U following Aaliyah’s passing. The album was a greatest hits compilation with a number of unreleased recordings mixed in, one of which was the Bryan Michael Cox, Jazze Pha, and Kevin Hicks produced “Come Over.” Written by Johnta Austin, the song finds Aaliyah fresh off a flight, dialing up a cuddle buddy in hopes of coming over on a late night creep.
Vivid lines such as “I know it’s late, but you’re on my mind/I’m wide awake, and I wanna stop by/So you can get up, and get out of the bed, cause I wanna see you” make you feel as if you she’s calling or vice-versa. Baby Girl’s lush vocals, a beautifully composed beat, and lyrics that any red blooded male or female could relate to, made for one of the more underrated songs in her catalog of hits.
* — And here’s a fun fact: Drake’s song “Come Thru” off of Nothing Was The Same is actually a response record to this track. Another example of how Aaliyah’s spirit still lives strong in many of us.
10. “Miss You”
Produced by Teddy Bishop and co-written by Johnta Austin, Ginuwine, and Bishop, “Miss You” sees Aaliyah reminiscing about an old love from high school that went away to college, but also serves as an unintentional tribute song to her memory. When she sang “Now you’re gone and I’m lost without you here and now/But I know I gotta live and make it somehow/Come back, to me, can you hear me/Hear me calling” it felt as if she was reading our collectives minds. And you’d be remiss to mention the song without acknowledging the accompanying music video, as it truly shows how cherished Aaliyah was as a person, with a who’s who of fellow artists, friends, and supporters making appearances. R.I.P. Aaliyah Dana Haughton. You are dearly missed.