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. How many of them have listened to this platter (including the Yoko side) a single time in the past 20 years? Not a lot, I'm guessing, which speaks volumes about the ways supposedly objective reviewers can get caught up in the grief of the moment, whether they realize it or not.
As Lloyd Bentsen might have put it, Aaliyah Haughton, 22, was no John Lennon, which makes the gusher of praise that's been directed at her since late last month, when she died in a plane crash, all the harder to process. But at the same time (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 big-time 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. 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 stuntwork and other tedious effects in favor of relaxed sensuality that enhanced the songs rather than overwhelming them. Granted, this decision may have been dictated by other factors -- like, for instance, pipes not nearly as fabulous as Christina's or Whitney's. But the results could be bracing, especially when she was working with Tim Mosley, a.k.a. Timbaland, who remains the cleverest, most singular producer in R&B today. The Grammy-nominated "Try Again" might have been trite and forgettable in any 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 ("If at first you don't succeed/Then dust yourself off and try again") beside the point.
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The only thing wrong with Aaliyah, her third full-length, issued a few weeks back, is the paucity of Timbaland tracks -- just three out of 14. 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 main woman against a grand riff decorated with glockenspiels and Bootsy Collins-esque bass splats; and "I Care 4 U," co-written by Mosley and longtime collaborator Missy Elliott, visits Mariah-land without once descending into the meaningless glissandos 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 own creations. "Rock the Boat," the tune for which Aaliyah was shooting a video shortly before her plane went down, is creamier than usual and not as distinctive. But "Loose Rap" ebbs and flows idiosyncratically; "U Got Nerve" sets its scolding lyric against an enjoyably cool, brittle backdrop; "It's Whatever" allows a carefree Aaliyah to casually float between the gaps in its spare beats.
If you've noticed no mention of the latest lyrics in this review thus far, there's a good reason for that: They don't matter much. The words, written exclusively by others (Aaliyah receives no songwriting credits), exist mainly to give the singer something to do, and they serve this purpose unobtrusively. Aaliyah's still the star attraction, and her style seems largely responsible for the album's confident tone. But in the end, her music is mainly about the worker bees behind the mixing board -- and on Aaliyah, these buzzers do their jobs admirably.
Does such a statement insult the memory of a talented young woman snatched away long before her time? I don't think so. With major roles in upcoming flicks such as The Queen of the Damned and the two Matrix sequels, she was primed for mass popularity, and there's a good chance she would have achieved it. Moreover, her music remains some of the more pleasurable on airwaves, no matter whose brow it sprang from -- 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 more hysterical kind.