The Promise of Aaliyah’s Self-Titled Final Album
20 years after its release, Aaliyah’s self-titled final album remains a testament to her creativity, self-confidence, and all the wonder her career held.
Her eyes gazing alluringly through a crimson haze as a sheer halter top embraces her body, the album cover for Aaliyah’s self-titled third album gave an enchanting preview of the sonic evolution the project housed.
The album, which was released on July 17, 2001, marked Aaliyah’s return to music after a four-year break following the release of her sophomore project One in a Million. Its sleek cover art and equally stunning album booklet images exemplified Aaliyah’s shift from a teenage sensation to a young adult in full control of her sound, her image as an artist, and her overall career as an entertainer.
“I think that she knew that she was not the girl to be blended in with the herd. At the end of the day, she chose all of the records that are on [the Aaliyah album]. She had to give the okay. She had to like them,” Aaliyah producer Eric Seats told Vibe in an interview about the album. “She was not a push over to where an A&R was going to come and say, ‘Babygirl, you got to put this one on there.’ She was running her stuff.”
With Aaliyah, the 22-year-old embraced a new sound that blended numerous genres and pulled from her own artistic awakening during her time away. During her break between the One in a Million and Aaliyah albums, Aaliyah experimented with a variety of sounds, including recording “Journey to the Past” for the Anastasia movie soundtrack in 1997 and “Are You That Somebody” for the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack in 1998. She also recorded four songs for the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, which was released in 2000, including her Billboard 100 №1 single “Try Again.”
Her self-titled project built on the musical exploration she did through those soundtrack singles, with the Aaliyah album’s tracks blending the R&B productions she was known for with rock, Latin music, and even dance pop elements.
The album — which returns to streaming services on September 10 after being unavailable in the years following its release — featured producers Bud’da, Eric Seats, J. Dub, Rapture, and Aaliyah’s long-time production partner Timbaland. The majority of the album’s tracks were written by Static Major, though Missy Elliot, Benjamin Bush and Tank also wrote on the project.
“I really just feel this album is a great reflection of me. Everybody really delivered and worked hard to give me what I wanted. The creative team I have on the album is amazing. They’re genius,” Aaliyah said in her MTV Diary episode, which aired on August 8, 2001. “We work very well together. We’re all very close and they know me very well, and they really just gave me everything that I could possibly want for this album. Bud’da, J. Dub, Timbaland, Missy, Tank, everybody really did an amazing job.”
“I feel it’s the best work that I’ve done to date,” she added. “So I’m hoping that people really feel me on this one.”
This combo of producers and writers made up a dream team that crafted a collection of catchy tracks that found Aaliyah carving a new lane in the R&B landscape she had occupied throughout her then seven-year solo career.
“I Can Be” grinds along, incorporating rock-influenced and trap elements as she croons in her intriguing lower register to lyrics written by Tank, letting her lover know she is content with being the other woman in his life. “It’s Whatever” floats elegantly with a sparse piano arrangement and its syrupy lyrics. Meanwhile “More Than a Woman” bounces along to a Timbaland beat that combines electro pop and hip hop elements. And the J. Dub-produced “I Refuse” takes a more dramatic approach to its storytelling about an abusive relationship that must come to an end for the safety and peace of mind of the woman involved, complete with sounds of horse hooves, rainfall, and a live guitar and orchestra.
“By the time she got to us, she already had an identity musically, and in her head she knew what she wanted to do. It was the right time and the right place for her,” J. Dub told Vibe. “We were all blessed to meet each other at the same time on the same vibe basically. Once she heard our music it wasn’t a hard fit. It wasn’t like something that we really had to work on. We did a beat and she loved it, they’d write it and we’d cut it.”
The album’s tracks spoke of life experiences familiar to many early 20-somethings who were transitioning into adulthood and gaining a better understanding of their needs and wants in their romantic lives, careers, and even their personal relationships with themselves.
Aaliyah wasn’t necessarily speaking of life experiences she had herself encountered — with her describing herself as an “interpreter” of songs in a Vibe cover story for the magazine’s August 2001 issue. “I’m not one to give everything and pour my heart out in one of my songs,” she said during the chat.
When speaking of the album’s lead single “We Need A Resolution” during an April 2001 appearance on 106 & Park to debut the song’s video, Aaliyah again stressed her role as a storyteller, revealing that the song’s tale of rocky love wasn’t her own.
“[We Need A Resolution” is] not anything that’s happened to me personally. But people have experienced relationships, they are having problems and they need something to be done,” Aaliyah told the show’s hosts Free and A.J. Calloway. “They need to address their problems. They need to resolve it. It just depicts what happens in real life.”
But even though the songs weren’t reflective of her own life, she expertly embodied its often emotional tales, using the project as a vessel of life experiences she could share with her fan base largely represented by pre-teens, teenagers, and young adults very close to her own age. The Aaliyah album was a sonic representation of the coming-of-age we all encounter in our early 20s. And in her own process of creative growth, she crafted an album that offered messages of self-love, surviving heartache, and even the freedom of defining your sexuality to her fans likely experiencing their own revelations on those topics as they made their transition into adulthood.
Even with the track “Erica Kane,” which coyly plays off the name of the All My Children soap character Erica Cane, Aaliyah gives her listeners a warning about the risks of cocaine use, with the song’s smooth production and her airy delivery cleverly masking the song’s darker, grave message.
Throughout the project there is a palpable authenticity that Aaliyah was truly stepping into a sound of her own — a sound she believed wholly represented her next era as an artist and reflected the lessons she had learned along the path to her third project.
“Her ear, for her to hear those sounds and say, ‘Aha!’ that’s what I mean by that. [Timbaland] didn’t do that. Static didn’t do that. That’s Aaliyah’s work,” Eric Seats told Vibe. “That’s her executive mind, so what you hear are the songs that she chose to sing. That makes her a genius, to not play it safe. She didn’t come like that.”
From her album cover and in-book art looks, to her live performances, red carpet outfits and her music videos, the Aaliyah era also found the singer embracing a refreshed personal style — looks crafted by both her and her stylist and costume designer Derek Lee. Gone were the trademark baggy pieces she rocked throughout her debut and sophomore projects, with those outfits replaced with low-cut tops, mid-drift bearing low-rise pants, slinky dresses, and towering stilettos. She also ditched the shades she had hidden behind on her first two album covers, putting her face in clear view for her musical reemergence with Aaliyah.
Her reworked aesthetic allowed her to tell a new personal style narrative that coupled perfectly with the agency Aaliyah exercised over every element of her self-titled era. She seemed to realize that her third project offered her a chance to reimagine all areas of her artistic image — including her personal style. And the combination of her evolving sound paired with her visual shift led to a creative evolution that expanded the boundaries of her career — and the R&B genre she became a staple in.
“I stay true to myself and my style, and I’m always pushing myself to be aware of that and be original. The only person who Aaliyah competes with is herself,” Aaliyah said in a 2001 JET interview.
In her MTV Diary special, when an interviewer asked what she wanted her legacy to be, Aaliyah revealed that her goal at the time was to be an all-around entertainer.
“At this point, right now, I’m gonna say that I want people to see me as an entertainer. Someone who can do it all. That’s how I was trained. My parents, they grew up loving the people of the classic movies, your Sammy Davis Jr.’s, all those people, Fred Astaire, and those kind of artists that can do it all,” Aaliyah said in the well-known clip. “You had to be able to do it all. And that’s how I was trained. And I want people to look at me as a full-on entertainer and a good person.”
Aaliyah was well on her way to achieving that often elusive actor-singer title, with Aaliyah being released amid her growing film career. Her film work had taken up a great deal of her time in between the release of One in a Million and her self-titled album. Her first acting role was an appearance as herself on a 1997 episode of New York Undercover — which came the same year she graduated from the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts as a drama major. She then went on to star in the 2000 film Romeo Must Die with Jet Li. She had also been cast as Zee in the Matrix sequels, as well as picked up a role in Whitney Houston’s Sparkle remake.
Aaliyah even recorded several of the album’s tracks while filming her final movie Queen of the Damned in Australia, with her label relocating her production team to Melbourne for the five-month film shoot so she could juggle working on the film and putting shape to the self-titled project.
“Before we would start recording Aaliyah would always come back and tell us what she filmed that day,” Eric Seats said of their time in Australia during an Instagram Live he recorded with Bud’da to share some details of the album’s recording process. “To hear the excitement in her voice from doing something else, she came to the studio with energy from what she had just done.”
Aaliyah proved she could indeed do it all — with Aaliyah creating a genre-blending project that highlighted her strengths as an artist and expanded her music into captivating new sonic spaces. And she completed the project in tandem with laying the quickly growing foundation of what was shaping up to be a standout acting career — ultimately producing quality projects on the screen and in the booth that made it clear she had transcended to an exciting new level on her journey as an entertainer.
20 years later, Aaliyah still sounds as innovative as it did when it dropped in July 2001. And as Aaliyah looks out from the album’s cover, the self-titled project remains an capturing testament to her understanding of her sound, her pop culture influence, and how pushing the creative boundaries of what was expected from her was the key to building an artistic legacy that would be the definition of timeless.