Aaliyah Haughton, the R&B singer whose untimely death was this day 13 years ago, was and still is admired for her poise, grace, and musicality with a voice that could readily upbraid a lover for doing wrong one minute and console the person wronged the next. Her vocal delivery and phrasing, not to mention her music’s lyrical content, reflected a maturity that seemed decades beyond her age. Besides this, Aaliyah, often donning a baseball cap and shades in her earliest videos and photos, was mysterious—never desperate to self-promote and taking roles in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned as well as The Matrix Reloaded, for which filming had not been completed at the time of her passing. When she looks into the camera during her episode of MTV’s Diary, filmed in 2001, and offers the show’s scripted line, “you think you know, but you have no idea,” her assuredness suggests that there is actually a large grain of truth to that statement.
Since her passing, Aaliyah’s music has been plumbed for countless remixes and interpolations or simply sampled for incorporation in entirely new songs. Drake famously released a track, “Enough Said,” featuring Aaliyah vocals that never had been heard previously. With any form of remix, ethical questions arise: is the remix fair to the original artist, on a creative level and/or a financial one? Would the original artist have supported the remix? To what extent should the creative expression of the new artist be upheld and encouraged?
If we consider stylistic similarity or parallelism in “ambience” to work in favor of a “remix,” then all of the five tracks below, which incorporate Aaliyah vocals (and, to an extent, productions), would make the grade. All five operate within the dark, soulful, groove-laden territory that characterized her music. Simply put, I’d somehow expect that she’d be a fan of these five tracks. Ironically, an Aaliyah track that has received remixing or sampling seemingly unparalleled in quantity to any of her other tracks is “Rock da Boat.” The track, which opens with snaps and a syncopated pseudo-steel drum before the first drop, revolves around swelling strings and swaying percussion; it’s effortlessly cool. The production and vocals are perhaps the smoothest of her career, and the lyrics develop the metaphor of sexual exploration as a nautical journey.
She and her crew filmed the video for the track in the Bahamas and, most tragically, returning from the production, their plane crashed. Thus, in a weird twist, without “Rock da Boat,” these five tracks would not exist and Aaliyah would probably still be alive.
To a beautiful song and its beautiful singer.
1. Nocturnal – Aaliyah Tribute
This track by grime outfit Nocturnal works around only two lines of “Rock da Boat”: “yeahhh” and “baby now hold me close.” Still, the percussion lends the new track a shuffle similar to that of the original, while the driving string phrases and horn flourishes make “Aaliyah Tribute” celebratory. The relatively simple repetitive harmonic shifts are playful and the sequence of stops and re-starts in the last ten seconds seems to echo the diva-like entrance established in the original’s first 20.
2. Float – Zomby
Part of Zomby’s hardcore nostalgia—the album Where Were U in ’92?—“Float” is premium dancefloor. Aaliyah’s lines, “boy you know you make me float” and “boy you really get me high”, bring the track from the sea to the club. Paired with Zomby’s keys and rapid-fire drums, her vocals seem to calmly coast over the crowd of dancers as a more insidious chiptune vocal weaves its way into the mix, closer to the bustling feet.
3. Richard X – Romance V.3
Incorporating a percussion line nearly identical to the original, British producer and remixer Richard X’s real “stroke” (in “RdB” parlance) of genius was the use of the strings from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Romance of the Telescope”, which makes this track the most melancholic of the five presented here. The breakdown he inserts during the second chorus creates an immense gravity that’s only released with the resumption of the percussion. The angelic harmonies of OMD used at the track’s end swiftly sacralize all that preceded.
4. Rescue Dawn II – Hype Williams
The synth line in this track is, oddly enough, reminiscent of the strings in Nocturnal’s “Aaliyah Tribute”: driving and constant and making everything cohere. Meanwhile, on the low end, the bass knocks at your eardrum, demanding a welcome. Drums hit intermittently and Aaliyah’s “feel like I’m on dope” is dramatically slowed so that the entire track is cast in a state of lethargy and haze. A siren becomes more prominent over time—is it a warning? muted celebration? In any case, like a number of Aaliyah tracks, particularly “One in a Million”, “Rescue Dawn II” brings together a few elements and uses them judiciously—it’s sparse but haunting.
5. Arca - DOEP
Of course, Timbaland’s production was an integral part of Aaliyah’s output, and while he didn’t play a role in “Rock da Boat”, Arca’s “Doep”, which incorporates the vocals “watch your stroke” and “feels like I’m on dope”, again heavily pitched down, draws on the writhing, almost sinister style typical of many late 90’s Timbaland tracks. With a complex, fluctuating meter, the track pushes further into weirdness. The lyrics outside of those drawn from “Rock da Boat” actually seem like ideal material for Aaliyah and her voice almost seems present with the line “top down when I watch you” near the end; the faint sounds of basketball sneakers scraping the floor after the one-minute mark create a nostalgia for the basketball-court context of the video to the singer’s first single, “Back & Forth”. This track represents the direction we only could hope 2010’s Aaliyah would have taken.
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