Aaliyah: Aaliyah

Like many young performers, Aaliyah has struggled to establish an identity independent from her powerful mentors. The singer first emerged as the precocious 15-year-old muse/protégé /child-bride of R. Kelly, the eccentric Svengali who wrote and produced nearly all of her 1994 debut, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number. The singer parted ways with Kelly before the release of 1996's One In A Million, which began her fruitful collaboration with then-newcomers Missy Elliott and Timbaland. (The latter, with a priceless assist from an anonymous squealing tot, produced Aaliyah's inescapable, career-defining single, "Are You That Somebody?") Along the way, Aaliyah snagged the role of Jet Li's strangely chaste semi-love interest in the forgettable Romeo Must Die, as well as the more promising-sounding title role in the forthcoming Queen Of The Damned. Considering her dramatic life, it's no wonder she sounds so prematurely world-weary on Aaliyah's first single, "We Need A Resolution." That song sets the template for the album as a whole, matching Timbaland's stuttering drums and synth melodies to Aaliyah's understated vocals and lyrics that confront the complexities of romantic relationships in a refreshingly adult fashion. "It's official, you got issues / I got issues," she coos cynically, and the disc addresses many of those issues, as Aaliyah explores the stages of love, from giddy infatuation to late-stage dysfunction to heartbreak and back again. Though Timbaland constitutes only one-seventh of Aaliyah's creative team, the disc feels surprisingly cohesive. Like Elliott's terrific last release, Aaliyah gets into a sultry, late-night groove and sticks with it, but throws in enough sonic twists—like the moody piano and symphonic flourishes of "I Understand"—to keep it from getting redundant. A show-business veteran at 22, Aaliyah has often been overshadowed by her collaborators, but her strikingly assured third album establishes the young overachiever as a major artist in her own right.

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