5 aaliyah tracks to rediscover, now that you can finally stream her 'ultimate' hits

We revisit the Aaliyah classics that influenced The xx and Frank Ocean as 25 of her greatest songs hit Apple Music.

by Emily Manning and i-D Staff
12 January 2017, 9:10pm

i-D The Pin-Ups Issue, No. 138, March 1995

Some seriously exciting records are slated for release in 2017: The xx's I See You (a short wait — it's due tomorrow), Lorde's eagerly anticipated sophomore, Sampha's Process, and please, for the love of god, Sky Ferreira's Masochism. Last night, we were unexpectedly given the year's first top-notch release. Except it's not a new record; it's 12 years old.

Ultimate, a 2005 album compiling Aaliyah's best-loved tracks, was quietly uploaded to Apple Music and iTunes, and is presently available to both stream and purchase. It features hits that span the R&B princess's illustrious, tragically abridged career: from party anthem "Back and Forth" — a cut from 1994 debut Age Ain't Nothing But a Number, released when Aaliyah was just 15 — to "More than a Woman," featured on her third and final record. There are also tracks from One in A Million, Aaliyah's outstanding second album that was written and produced largely by Missy Elliott and Timbaland. It celebrated its 20th anniversary over the summer (see Missy's touching Insta tribute here).

Despite Aaliyah's persistent popularity and enduring influence on some of today's most mega musicians (Drake worships her, Beyoncé vocally genuflects) much of her music is not available for streaming or sale on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, or any other digital music service. (Complex dug deep into the thorny legal battles behind this Aaliyah absence in a fascinating piece published last month).

As you give Ultimate the first of many spins, here are five of our favorite tracks to listen a little more closely to.

"Hot Like Fire": Though Aaliyah worked with the Isley Brothers, Jermaine Dupri, Slick Rick, Dark Child, and Diane Warren on One in a Million, it's largely a product of her fruitful collaboration and deep friendship with Missy Elliott and Timbaland. "Hot Like Fire," the record's scorching second track, is the work of the dream team through and through. Co-written by the Virginia Beach mavericks and with Timbo handling production duties on his own, "Hot Like Fire" features a sizzling, soulful, and bouncing beat (plus an ad-lib Tim ripped from Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner"). Its under-appreciated music video — in which Lil' Kim and Missy make low-key cameos — features peak Aaliyah street style: rose-tinted shades and baggy camo cargos. The xx included a slow, simmering cover of "Hot Like Fire" on its 2009 debut record. Who knew Tim's steamy hook would sound just as excellent as a plucky guitar melody?

"More Than a Woman": Making a selection from Aaliyah's self-titled album — her third and final record, released shortly before her tragic death in 2001 — is challenging. Artistically, it's arguably her most mature offering, containing a wide range of offerings from "Rock the Boat" to "We Need a Resolution" (for which Timbaland sampled American film composer John Ottman). "More Than a Woman" earns a shoutout not simply for its daring blend of pop and electronic influences, but also for its absolutely bonkers music video. Like many big-budget R&B videos released in the Y2K era (think Missy Elliott's "She's a Bitch," or TLC's "Unpretty" and "No Scrubs") this one features a direct engagement with machinery and imagined technologies. In a white Chanel jumpsuit, Aaliyah dances inside a motorcycle (which, it is revealed at the end, she is somehow also driving). We see hydraulic pistons pump before voyaging into the motorcycle's headlights. Here, Aaliyah performs super-intricate choreography while Rashida Jones and Mark Ronson (!!!) keep the vibes high. In a word: art.

"At Your Best": This Isley Brothers hit was originally released in 1976 as a tribute to the band's mother. Over 20 years later, a then-15-year-old Aaliyah released a cover version as the second single from her debut album Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. This cover was produced by R.Kelly, Aaliyah's early mentor (and, very controversially, her rumored secret husband) who handled much of Age Ain't Nothing But a Number's songwriting and production duties. The song was revived yet again by Frank Ocean, who can capably match Aaliyah's delicate yet powerful high octaves. In 2015, he released a stripped down and soulful rendition of the tune on what would have been Aaliyah's 36th birthday. It was later included on his long-awaited return record, Endless.

"Come Back in One Piece": Aaliyah and DMX entered the new millennium as musicians turned movie stars, appearing together in the action thriller Romeo Must Die. The pair also teamed up on a slammer for its soundtrack, "Come Back in One Piece." Featuring a Parliament/Funkadelic sample from 1977, the energetic cut has an accompanying video that includes high-octane clips from the film, epically coordinated outfits, and Aaliyah playing with a puppy in bed. Also, the toddler at 3:24 is officially my 2017 style icon.

"Are You That Somebody": Thank god this was included on Ultimate, because, believe it or not, this Grammy-nominated banger was recorded not for one of Aaliyah's albums, but for the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. No shade at all to Eddie Murphy and his animal affiliates, the 1998 film actually assembled a pretty dope score (Timbaland, Ginuwine, and Twista all feature), which — unlike Aaliyah's other records — is actually available on iTunes. The catch is: the entire soundtrack, including "Are You That Somebody," is only available the eternally frustrating "album only." If you want one song, you've gotta buy 'em all. But now that Ultimate has been uploaded, you can stream the song in all of its laughing baby-sampling glory to your heart's content. We also highly recommend giving its video another play. The closest it comes to Dr. Doolittle vibes is when Aaliyah sings the opening lines "Boy, I been watching you like a hawk in the sky" with a live hawk perched on her arm. RIP Baby Girl, you were truly one in a million. 


Text Emily Manning

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