Writing reviews of recordings by freshly dead artists is a tricky business that frequently results in overrating, a critical embarrassment that keeps on giving. Think about all those poor schmoes who, rightly thunderstruck by John Lennon's murder, found themselves raving about Double Fantasy, a modest album that's not even within spitting distance of his best work.
As Lloyd Bentsen might have put it, the 22-year-old Aaliyah Haughton was no John Lennon, which makes the gusher of praise that's been directed at her since August 25, when she died in a plane crash, all the harder to process. Still (and this was obvious long before her demise), she was more interesting than the average R&B ingénue. For one thing, her teen years were wonderfully soap-operatic. She got into bigtime show business with the help of her uncle, a former husband of singer Gladys Knight who managed R. Kelly, soul's reigning smooch king. Kelly subsequently produced Aaliyah's 1994 debut disc, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number -- a title that seemed creepily prophetic when reports circulated that Kelly had secretly married his charge, then 15 years old. Aaliyah denied these claims, then promptly dropped out of sight for two years. Hmmmm.
More to the point, Aaliyah's music stood out from the rest of the teen fodder on the charts by virtue of an exceedingly rare quality: subtlety. Unlike her peers, the majority of whom subscribe to the more-is-more school, she rejected vocal stunt work in favor of a relaxed sensuality that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the songs. Granted, this decision may have been dictated by other factors -- like, for instance, pipes not nearly as fabulous as Christina's. But the results could be bracing, especially when she was working with Tim Mosley, also known as Timbaland, who remains the cleverest, most singular producer in R&B today. The Grammy-nominated "Try Again" might have been trite and forgettable in other hands; in his it emerged as a seductive groove with a purr of a vocal from Aaliyah that made the tune's thematic aphorisms beside the point.
The only thing wrong with Aaliyah, her third full-length, issued a few weeks back, is the paucity of Timbaland tracks -- just three of the disc's fourteen. Fortunately, though, this trio of tunes is first-rate. "We Need a Resolution," which kicks off the proceedings, mates quasi-Egyptian touches with trademark ahs and ungs from Timbaland that counterbalance Aaliyah's sinuous crooning; "More Than a Woman" pits the singer against a grand riff decorated with glockenspiels and Bootsy Collins-esque bass splats; and "I Care 4 U," cowritten by Mosley and longtime collaborator Missy Elliott, visits Mariah land without once descending into the meaningless glissandi that are Ms. Carey's stock in trade.
Just as important, the other producers on hand -- most often Rapture and E. Seats -- frequently use the Timbaland format as a template for their creations. "Rock the Boat," the tune for which Aaliyah was shooting a video shortly before her plane went down, is creamier than and not as distinctive as her usual. But "Loose Rap" ebbs and flows idiosyncratically; "U Got Nerve" sets its scolding lyrics against an enjoyably cool, brittle backdrop; "It's Whatever" allows a carefree Aaliyah to float casually between the gaps in its spare beats.
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With major roles in upcoming flicks such as The Queen of the Damned and the two Matrix sequels, Aaliyah was primed for mass popularity, and there's a good chance she would have achieved it. Moreover, her music remains some of the most pleasurable on current CHR stations, no matter from whose brow it sprang -- and were she alive right now, the same would be true. That may sound like faint praise, but it'll have a longer shelf life than the hysterical kind.