Aaliyah is the 2001 third and final studio album by American R&B singer Aaliyah. After raising her profile with hit soundtrack singles during the late 1990s, Aaliyah started to work on the album in 1998, but rescheduled its recording around her developing film career. She resumed recording in 2000 at Sing Sing Studios in Australia, where she shot her role for the 2002 film Queen of the Damned during the day and recorded songs at night. Aaliyah worked primarily with Blackground Records' in-house crew of writers and producers, including Bud'da, J. Dub, Rapture, and Eric Seats, as well as longtime collaborator Timbaland.
Aaliyah is an R&B and neo soul record with music drawing from funk, hip hop, alternative rock, and electronica, among other styles. The producers incorporated synthesizer melodies, fragmented beats, distorted guitar, and eccentrically manipulated vocals and song structures. Much of Aaliyah dealt with the complexities of romantic love and different stages in a relationship. Most of the songs were written by lyricist Static Major, who shared a close friendship and strong rapport with Aaliyah. She viewed the album as a reflection of herself as both a young adult and a matured vocalist.
Aaliyah was released by Blackground and Virgin Records America on July 7, 2001, to highly positive reviews from critics and debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, but sold diminishingly afterwards. When Blackground and Virgin wanted a high charting single to increase the album's sales, Aaliyah shot a music video for the song "Rock the Boat" in the Bahamas, but died in a plane crash on a return flight to the United States on August 25, 2001. After her death, sales of the album skyrocketed and propelled it to number one on the Billboard 200. Aaliyah was released during a period of peak activity in contemporary R&B and, since its initial reception, has been cited by critics as one of the best R&B records of its time.
Aaliyah released her second album One in a Million in 1996, and graduated from high school the following year. She gained further exposure with radio hits from film soundtracks, including her 1998 single "Are You That Somebody?". After it became the biggest hit of her career at that point, Aaliyah wanted to keep a lower profile and avoid overexposure. A follow-up record was planned for February 1999, but she postponed its recording to develop an acting career, which led to a starring role in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die. The film heightened her profile significantly, while the soundtrack's single "Try Again" became her first number-one pop hit. Her label Blackground Records used the film and its soundtrack to set up a distribution deal with Virgin Records America, which would distribute Blackground's subsequent releases globally, including her self-titled third album.
Aaliyah began recording the album in 1998. She recorded a few songs, including two with longtime collaborator Timbaland, before working on Romeo Must Die. In 1999, while working on the record in New York City, Aaliyah called and asked Trent Reznor, one of her musical idols, to produce a song, but they could not coordinate their schedules. She intended to finish the album by the end of 2000 and resumed its recording while filming in Australia for Queen of the Damned (2002), as she shot her part for the film during the day and recorded songs at night. She said in an interview for Billboard, "there were nights when I didn't go into the studio—I was too tired. On the weekends, I always made it." Jomo Hankerson, Blackground president and Aaliyah's cousin, said that he had to "bribe the producers", who did not want to "go halfway around the world!", but ultimately had "a beautiful time ... making hot music".
Most of the album's songs were recorded at either Sony Studios in New York City or Sing Sing Studios in Melbourne, including "Loose Rap", which was done at both studios. Aaliyah recorded "More Than a Woman" at Manhattan Center Studios, "U Got Nerve" at Soundtracks Studios in New York City, "We Need a Resolution" at Westlake Studios, and "I Care 4 U" at Magic Mix Studios and Music Grinder Studios in Los Angeles. She had first recorded "I Care 4 U", written by past collaborator Missy Elliott, in 1996 for One in a Million, but scrapped it after that album's completion. Aaliyah worked with Blackground Records' in-house crew of musicians, songwriters, and producers, including novice producers Bud'da, J. Dub, Rapture, and Eric Seats. Music manager Jimmy Henchman, a friend of Aaliyah's manager Barry Hankerson, helped coordinate the record's production and arranged for the producers and writers to work with Aaliyah.
Most of the album's lyrics were written by Static, from the R&B band Playa. While the band was growing apart, he was invited by Blackground to be a lead writer for the album after writing "Are You That Somebody?" and "Try Again". Static was a part of Aaliyah's close group of friends, which included Missy Elliott and Timbaland, and shared an infatuation with her. He found Aaliyah to be ideal for his songwriting style, while she believed that he could accurately portray her feelings. A subtly sexual lyricist, he wrote "Rock the Boat" for her in 1999, but Blackground felt she was not ready for the song. Barry Hankerson said of his songwriting, "We always were protective over every lyric ... But he did things where you never felt offended. You just felt like you overheard someone thinking ... he was clever ... Aaliyah depended on him [and] he depended on her." Elliott said that he was "a part of that bridge of Aaliyah growing up lyrically". While she discussed the lyrics with Static, Aaliyah consulted Bud'da about the sound and musical direction of the album. She was interested in learning about the UK garage scene at the time.
In March 2001, Aaliyah finished recording the album after having filmed her part in Queen of the Damned for four months, which ultimately delayed the album's release. In Australia, she also did a photo shoot for Aaliyah with photographers Jeff Dunas, Jonathan Mannion, David LaChapelle, and Albert Watson. Aaliyah handled five pythons at the shoot and developed an affinity for snakes, finding them "dangerous, but quite beautiful" and representative of her on the album. She revisited the snake theme in her music video for "We Need a Resolution" in April and told MTV, "They live in solitude, [and] there are times in my life [when] I just want to be by myself. There are times I can't even figure myself out. I feel they are very complex creatures, [but] at the same time, they're sexy, too. That's why they represent Aaliyah pretty well." She described the record as "a good reflection of [myself] and the person [I am] today", saying in an interview for Jet magazine, "I am a young adult now, and I think this album shows my growth vocally." Aaliyah was mastered by Bernie Grundman at his studio in Los Angeles.
An R&B and neo soul album, Aaliyah featured midtempo funk songs, hip hop-textured uptempo tracks, and slow jams that drew on older soul influences. Along with contemporary urban sounds, its music incorporated Middle-Eastern influences, muted alternative rock, and--particularly on Timbaland's songs for the album--Latin timbres. "Never No More" mixed both older soul and modern hip hop sounds with string arrangements by producer Bud'da, while "Read Between the Lines" was recorded as a rhythmic digital samba with Latin percussion. Aaliyah's production featured synthesizer melodies, vintage syndrums, distorted guitar, staccato arrangements, and layered, eccentrically manipulated vocals. John Mulvey of NME found its sound subtle and lacking "bombast and histrionics", while the magazine's Alex Needham likened its "otherworldly", high frequency production to dub reggae and the dark, spacious dance music of Dr. Dre and Massive Attack. In Stephen Thomas Erlewine's opinion, the album was distinct from the older soul leanings of Macy Gray and Jill Scott, as its music sounded unconventional yet modern, "turning out a pan-cultural array of sounds, styles, and emotions".
Aaliyah's beats were produced in a manner that made them sound fragmented, exhibiting techno and electro textures. Tracks such as "Loose Rap", "Extra Smooth", and "What If" feature unconventional song structures experimenting with resolution. "I Can Be" and "What If" incorporates 2-step and rock elements, although the latter song draws particularly from Detroit techno and industrial rock. On the club-influenced "More Than a Woman", Aaliyah sang over harsh-sounding synthesizer and guitar sounds, while "Loose Rap" features underwater noises, low-key electronica in the style of the Neptunes, and harmonically soft vocals declaring "it ain't just rhythm and blues". Ernest Hardy of Rolling Stone compared the album's experimentation to the sounds on OutKast's Stankonia (2000), Sade's Lovers Rock (2000), and Missy Elliott's Miss E... So Addictive (2001). According to Slant Magazine's Sal Cinquemani, "like Elliott's genre-bending So Addictive, Aaliyah provides a missing link between hip-hop and electronica."
The lyrics on Aaliyah explored the intricacies of romantic love and phases in a relationship such as heartache, frivolous infatuation, and issues near the end of a relationship. Subtle, lighthearted humor and witty sound effects such as comical vocal manipulation interspersed the themes of heartbreak and eroticism. According to Citysearch's Justin Hartung, the record "transforms the confusion of young adulthood into exhilarating freedom". Bob Waliszewski of Plugged In observed female empowerment-themed songs that showed a "healthy self-respect" by Aaliyah, who "doesn't put up with unfaithful cads ('You Got Nerve'), mind games ('I Refuse'), self-impressed hunks ('Extra Smooth'), gossip and envy ('Loose Rap'), or physical abuse ('Never No More')". The key-shifting, drum and bass-influenced "Extra Smooth" addressed an enthusiastic courtship and was inspired by a conversation between Aaliyah and Static about how men try to act suave, while "Loose Rap" was titled after the slang phrase of the same name and dismissed romantic admirers who use trite pick-up lines. "Those Were the Days" dispassionately dismissed a male lover, while "What If" angrily threatened an unfaithful lover and by extension similar men. On "I Care 4 U", the narrator tried to console a friend who is heartbroken, but found herself distressed by unrequited feelings she has for him.
Aaliyah sang with restrained soprano vocals throughout the album. Vibe magazine's Hyun Kim argued that its songs drew focus to her singing more than her previous records, "bringing it to the forefront as opposed to hiding it behind the layered production". "Rock the Boat" was sung with breathless vocals by Aaliyah, who instructed her lover on how to please her sexually and equated her erotic high to a drug high. Ballads such as "I Care 4 U", "Never No More", and "I Refuse" were sung more emotively, expressing melancholy qualities and hurt. On "I Can Be", Aaliyah sang from the perspective of an adulterous man's mistress who wanted to be his foremost girlfriend. Alex Macpherson from The Guardian wrote that "Aaliyah's blank, numbed delivery" on the song "makes being the other woman seem like an emotionally masochistic form of self-medication". Biographer Christopher John Farley said she "emotionally detailed a song" unlike on her previous albums and that "her gentle voice now seemed like something elemental, a kindly wind blowing through the branches of a big tree." According to Joshua Clover, Aaliyah pushed musical notes "into strange corners of syncopation's shifty architecture" on the more "shape-defying" tracks. He wrote that "she makes the sonics tell the story, creating meaning outside the lyrics, pleasure beyond the hooks."
After Aaliyah was released in July 2001, it debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling 187,000 copies in the week of August 4. Although it was the highest sales week of Aaliyah's career, the album initially sold slower than her previous record, One in a Million. Blackground and Virgin, which had invested heavily in Aaliyah's commercial performance, wanted a single with a high chart placement to help increase sales. "We Need a Resolution" had been released as the lead single on April 13, but underperformed on radio and only reached number fifty-nine on the Billboard Hot 100. In August, Aaliyah shot a music video for "More Than a Woman" in Los Angeles and then travelled to the Bahamas to shoot a video for "Rock the Boat". But after its completion, she and several crew members who were returning to the United States died in a plane crash on August 25. Blackground executives were uncertain when they would release the album's next single and video.
The album's sales skyrocketed after Aaliyah's death. Before her death, its sales had been diminishing since the album's release in July and stood at more than 447,000 copies sold. News of her death was reported on the last day of Nielsen SoundScan's sales tracking week, during which Aaliyah sold 62,000 copies, a 41.5% increase from its past week's sales. The following week, it sold 305,500 copies and ascended from number 19 to number one on the Billboard 200. It was the record's highest sales week and marked the first time a recording artist climbed to number one posthumously since John Lennon in 1980 with his album Double Fantasy. It was also Aaliyah's only album to top any of Billboard's charts. The record sold more than one million copies by September 19 and 2.06 million copies by February 25, 2002. In the US, Aaliyah spent 68 weeks on the Billboard 200 and, by December 2009, had sold 2.6 million copies.
Blackground, which had ended its joint deal with Virgin in November, wanted to send the video for "More Than a Woman" to domestic outlets, but it required both labels to work together. Blackground subsequently moved to Universal Records, and the video was first aired in Europe. In the United Kingdom, "More Than a Woman" was released as a single on January 7, 2002, and entered the singles chart at number one, while Aaliyah re-entered the albums chart at number 65; it had originally entered the chart at number 25 on July 28, 2001. Two weeks after "More Than a Woman" reached number one, the album jumped 17 spots to number five on January 27, 2002. Aaliyah went on to spend 31 weeks on the British charts. It also reached number nine on the record charts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, where it charted for 33, 41, and 46 weeks, respectively.
Aaliyah received highly positive reviews from critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, the album received an average score of 76, based on 14 reviews. Michael Odell of The Guardian called it a flawless blend of pop and R&B that was "as much a brochure for the current state of R&B production facilities" as it was a showcase for Aaliyah's singing. He found the music's textures "scintillating" and believed its distinguishing characteristic to be "a playful and confident reworking of the [R&B] canon". In the Chicago Tribune, Brad Cawn wrote that Aaliyah demonstrated Sade's grace and Missy Elliott's daring with fashionable neo soul that was "equal parts attitude and harmony, and all urban music perfection", while Russell Baillie from The New Zealand Herald deemed the music innovative dance-pop on what he called "a cohesive, detailed and disarmingly enticing album". Simon Price, writing for The Independent, cited the record as "further evidence that black pop is the avant garde". In a review for The A.V. Club, Nathan Rabin argued that the album established Aaliyah as a significant artist unobscured by her collaborators, while Hardy from Rolling Stone called it "a near-flawless declaration of strength and independence" in which Aaliyah explored her "fantasies and strengths". Writing for Spin, Clover viewed the record as her most profound work and said she had made "art" out of Timbaland and Static's "formal finesse" by "investing sound schemes with urgency and emotional intricacy".
In a less enthusiastic review, Connie Johnson from the Los Angeles Times found the production unadventurous and felt the lyrics lacked the depth and "personal revelation that gives music some immediacy". Mulvey deemed Aaliyah "graceful" and "satisfying rather than extraordinary" in his review for NME, saying although it was redeemed by Static's consistent songwriting, Timbaland should have contributed more songs. Like Mulvey, Q remarked that its music was decent rather than innovative, with some filler. In Entertainment Weekly, Craig Seymour wrote that there were a few songs that strayed from her musical strengths, but elsewhere she "skillfully portrays love as part woozy thrill, part pulse-racing terror". Robert Christgau gave the record a three-star honorable mention, indicating "an enjoyable effort consumers attuned to its overriding aesthetic or individual vision may well treasure". In his column for The Village Voice, he named "We Need a Resolution" and "U Got Nerve" as highlights and called Aaliyah "a slave to her beats, but a proud slave".
Aaliyah was named the best album of 2001 by Slant Magazine and one of the ten best records of the year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Time magazine. NME ranked it at number 39 on their year-end list. The album finished 73rd in the Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of American critics published by The Village Voice. Christgau, who created and supervised the poll, said Aaliyah finally "developed material nobody can deny" on "a good album". The record also finished 37th in the annual poll run by German music magazine Spex. For the album, Aaliyah was posthumously awarded an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Female Artist. At the 2002 American Music Awards, it won in the category of Favorite R&B/Soul Album. In 2002, Aaliyah received a Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Album. "Rock the Boat" was nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. "More Than a Woman" was nominated in the same category in 2003. In 2005, Aaliyah was ranked number 66 on GQ's 2005 list of the "100 Coolest Albums in the World". Stylus Magazine ranked it 47 on their list of the "Top 50 Albums of 2000–2005"; the publication's David Drake ranked it eighth on his own list. Vibe included it as one of their "150 Essential Albums of the Vibe Era" in 2007. A few years later, Aaliyah was named by Slant Magazine as the 72nd best record of the 2000s decade.
Along with Aaliyah's burgeoning film career, the album was a part of her rising mainstream success in 2001. In a retrospective review, Steve Huey from AllMusic called it her most consummate record and said it "completed the singer's image overhaul into a sensual yet sensitive adult". Erlewine, the website's senior editor, regarded the album as "a statement of maturity and a stunning artistic leap forward", while BBC Music's Daryl Easlea felt it made Aaliyah's two previous accomplished albums "look like exercises in juvenilia". According to PopMatters journalist Quentin B. Huff, she had never used her singing to complement her music's innovative production before with as much variety, conviction, and success as on Aaliyah, which he said was also known as "The Red Album" because of its red artwork. Huff believed the record showcased the growing rapport between the singer and her collaborators while disproving questions about how she would continue recording music while broadening her profile. In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Keith Harris wrote that "Aaliyah had grown from studio puppet to a powerful R&B archetype—a more self-aware Ronnie Spector for a time that requires more self-awareness of its young adults."
Before her death, Aaliyah had planned to embark on the largest concert tour of her career to support the album. Her recording sessions for Aaliyah produced many leftover tracks that were posthumously archived by Blackground and mostly left unreleased because of internal conflicts and legal complications between the label, Aaliyah's family, and the producers. The compilation album I Care 4 U was released in 2002 and featured six previously unreleased songs from the sessions for Aaliyah.
Aaliyah's re-emergence with the album in mid-2001 had coincided with a period of peak activity in contemporary R&B, as well as the popularity of neo soul. According to Erlewine, Aaliyah was "one of the strongest urban soul records of its time", while The Guardian cited it as the peak of R&B's golden age at the "turn of the century". Alexis Petridis, the newspaper's lead critic, believed Aaliyah had recorded her most engaging music in a year when R&B and hip hop demonstrated the most creativity in popular music. The Guardian's Rebecca Nicholson attributed Timbaland's subsequent commercial success with singers such as Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado to his experience producing Aaliyah, writing that he "hasn't come close to creating anything as sonically stunning since". Although Jon Caramanica from Vibe believed it "redefines the category", he said Aaliyah "may be the best soul album of the young millenium", calling its music "daring in construction, gorgeous from conception ... damn near post-R&B". Q journalist Eve Barlow credited the album for "creating a blueprint that can be heard across pop music today" with acts such as R&B singers Beyoncé and The Weeknd, and indie pop band The xx.
Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.