I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard Aaliyah: stuck in gridlock on the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley, flipping through Los Angeles radio stations in my car. Abruptly, spacious, skittering beats thumped forth from the speakers and materialized an alternate reality, one inhabited by… crickets? Then a hushed voice appeared, simultaneously conveying lust and restraint — a rare combo in that new jack swing era — “Baby, you don’t know what you do to me/Between me and you, I feel a chemistry.” Gooey keyboards and filtered guitar samples ushered me into an excited, unsettled state, more sonically and emotionally nuanced than American radio usually entertained back then. This was “One In A Million,” Aaliyah’s artistic and commercial beachhead of 1996.
Aaliyah’s influence on contemporary R&B is undeniable, but it’s sometimes forgotten how British electronica was changed by its encounter with Aaliyah, too. (In the car, I briefly thrilled to the possibility that drum’n’bass had broken through to American hip hop.) Sure, producers recognized a kindred spirit in her producer Timbaland, but Aaliyah’s voice, her persona, demonstrated how to emote soulful calm in a storm of beats to a generation of groups that heretofore hewed to the reserved (white) boy/girl electronica duo format.
The transatlantic debt to Aaliyah is once again acknowledged in the cover of another stone-cold Aaliyah jam, “More Than A Woman,” by Kelly Lee Owens. A triple threat — creative songwriter, innovative producer, and engaging vocalist — Owens has been riding high in 2017 with her acclaimed self-titled debut album of affecting techno music. With “More Than A Woman,” she lets her guard down a little, inspired by the untouchable cool that tragically left this world sixteen years ago. Owens’ bonus “KLO Remix” points the wayback machine back to the future.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.