On what would have been her 44th birthday, Endless Crate looks back at the best songs from Aaliyah’s seminal discography
You might be wondering why a website that claims to bring you the best music you haven’t heard yet is doing a feature on the best Aaliyah songs, one of the most celebrated R&B singers of the past few decades. Well, if you’re an underground music head like me, then there’s a chance that (like me) you may have avoided listening to Aaliyah when she was on top of the pop world, and, consequently, missed out on some of the best, most forward-thinking R&B music ever produced.
Though her career was short, few artists have had as much impact on R&B as Aaliyah. Her three acclaimed studio albums—Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, One in a Million, and Aaliyah—are nearly flawless. Her vocal talents had the power to make any song memorable and her verses were often just as unforgettable. With her music, movies and sultry style, Aaliyah was the epitome of a modern-day R&B superstar.
Her death in 2001 was a tragic loss to the music community. There’s no way to say how the music world would be different if she were still here with us today, but there’s no doubt that her music continues to inspire artists and listeners alike more than 15 years after her untimely passing. Her sound lives on in innumerable artists today; if you’ve been paying attention, you could hear it in nearly every singer making music today, from The Weeknd to Beyoncé.
Aaliyah may be gone, but she lives on through her recordings. And while her discography is a masterclass of soulfulness and craftsmanship, picking just 10 songs to represent that work is tough. Her music career is filled with classics, but here are the 10 best Aaliyah songs of all-time.
The 10 Best Aaliyah Songs Of All-Time
10. Come Back In One Piece (feat. DMX)
“Come Back in One Piece” is an unlikely duet between one of hip-hop’s most notorious artists and one of its greatest voices. Together DMX and Aaliyah made magic—a true love song for lovers and haters alike. Taken from the 2000 movie, Romeo Must Die, “Come Back in One Piece” is filled with soft melodies and heartfelt lyrics. This song was one of DMX’s most tender moments, showing us that even though he often walks alone, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want someone by his side. It’s really not all that far from most of his other work, but it offers a bit of light to all the darkness. Aaliyah helps him show his softer side while also showing her ability to stay strong while handling the ups and downs of life. X’s self-awareness and emotional intelligence (in addition to his aggressive delivery) allowed him to strike up a perfect chemistry with Aaliyah, whose rich vocals served as the perfect foil for his grittier approach to love songs. A love song for hip-hop heads and R&B fans alike, it was also one of the best Aaliyah songs ever released.
9. I Gotcha’ Back
“I Gotcha’ Back” is the smooth side of Aaliyah. The song’s production by Jermaine Dupri and Carl So-Lowe is classic: lush and sexy, with lots of space for Aaliyah to play it cool over the top. The ’90s production is pretty much perfect, combining breezy synthesizers with acoustic guitars and understated drums to create a smooth backdrop for Aaliyah’s verse. Laid-back and subtly shifting, “I Gotcha’ Back” isn’t a bottle rocket of a song, but its smooth groove and casual lyrics packed with laconic lines made it one of the most enjoyable tracks on Aaliyah’s album One In A Million. It’s also one of the most underrated Aaliyah songs too.
8. We Need A Resolution (feat. Timbaland)
Aaliyah’s first two albums had been critically acclaimed, but for the follow up to her 2001 self-titled album, Aaliyah wanted to work with a wider range of producers and collaborators than Timberland and Missy Elliott. But, in the end, the album’s best song was a Timbo-backed number which found Aalyiah’s choice producer in top form. “We Need A Resolution” builds to a crescendo and then retreats, an approach that enhances the song’s drama. Aaliyah shows both vulnerability and strength throughout the song, portraying the feelings of uncertainty and bitterness that come with infidelity. Timberland also does a great job with his verse here, proving that he can be a decent rapper when he wants to be.
7. Try Again
With “Try Again,” Aaliyah and Timbaland were a match made in heaven. Timbaland was an obsessive music nerd always looking for ways to push his sound ever further and Aaliyah wasn’t interested in creating the pop hits that would place her alongside the Britney Spearses and Christina Aguileras of the world. This Aaliyah song is a perfect example of their two visions colliding to create magic—a strong showing of Aaliyah’s vocal abilities and Timbaland’s production prowess. The beat itself on “Try Again” is so addictive, it’s no wonder this was such a huge hit. Aaliyah helmed vocals over distorted acid house beats that still hold up today, pushing her voice even further outside the boundaries of what was expected from a female singer in 2000 or now. “Try Again” was one of the most successful pop songs of the year when it was released in 2000, and solidified the R&B star as one of the most successful pop stars of her generation.
6. 4 Page Letter
Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter” (from the 1996 album One in a Million) is a perfect example of her keen ability to blend together pop and R&B with deft musicality. It’s a haunting, slow-burning song that is as good of an entry point into Aaliyah’s catalog as any. The beat is slow and slinky and the lyrics are haunting. “4 Page Letter” is the type of Aaliyah song that gets better with time. You have to really sit and listen first so that you can find the meaning behind all of its layers. Then, when you find it, you savor it.
5. Back & Forth
Aaliyah’s “Back & Forth” is a song so good that you could play it on repeat and still enjoy it as much as the first time. Coming off her debut album, this is a quintessential dance-ready early summer jam in which she sings about partying on a Friday night with effortless confidence, as if it were as youthful a time for her as it would be for her peers years later.
The song itself was a perfect barometer of her pop sensibility, which was rooted in hip-hop but allowed to blossom outwards without being constrained by genre. Aaliyah’s delivery alternated between breathy and aggressive, as she teased out a classic R&B melody with the production playing second fiddle to her charisma. Compulsively listenable, this is easily one of the top Aaliyah songs ever.
4. If Your Girl Only Knew
Timbaland’s early beat making skills are arguably most impressive on this production. He’s always been an artist who weaves disparate vocal tones, sounds, and ideas into a masterful tapestry; but Aaliyah’s hauntingly captivating vocals are truly the glue that holds this track together. “If Your Girl Only Knew” is one of the classic Aaliyah songs that doesn’t get enough credit. The beat is fire and she never sounded better. The lyrics are full of innuendo, but the song itself is something of a subversion; rather than a cliche story about couples who cheat, it’s about how Aaliyah knows her worth, and she’ll make sure you know it too.
3. Hot Like Fire (Timbaland’s Groove Mix)
With “Hot Like Fire,” Aaliyah once again proved that Aaliyah was the perfect muse for Timbaland’s futuristic vibes. She rode his tracks with elegance and grace and they created a unique sound that really helped push R&B into the future. Aaliyah’s vocals were so smooth, and it sounds like it was no effort to sing over Timbo’s futuristic beats. No one has ever sounded better on Timbaland beats than Aaliyah did.
Timbaland provided another entrancing beat on this hot remix. The original version was great too, but Timbaland’s “Groove Mix” brought so much more life to it. The song stands out in a sea of sound as one of the finest R&B tracks of the 1990s and one of the best Aaliyah songsperiod.
2. One In A Million
Aaliyah and Timbaland created one of the most influential bodies of work in R&B history on “One In A Million.” This was the song that cemented Aaliyah’s status as one of the greats, and demonstrated her ability to ride beats that were unlike anything else happening in R&B at the time. One of the best Aaliyah songs during her time, the song also showcased her tremendous vocal abilities as well as a unique sound that was ahead of its time in music.
With its futuristic sound, it helped usher in a new era of R&B, before producers began to make this type of beat more standard fare. That’s what makes “One In A Million” such an important piece of music history; we still appreciate it for what it was meant to be – something unique, unlike anything anyone had heard before.
1. Are You That Somebody?
“Are You That Somebody?” has become a classic jam that captures all of the best parts of Aaliyah’s music: her sly, seductive vocal delivery and the fact that she didn’t have to alter herself or change anything about herself in order to be respected. She performed it with a grace and confidence that didn’t waver. This was no one-off event; she did stuff like this all the time. But “Are You That Somebody?” is such a perfect storm of things Aaliyah can do so well that it may be hard for future artists to ever surpass it.
The song was masterful in part because of its sparse production, but Aaliyah’s vocal performance felt effortless all the same. On “Are You That Somebody?” she had an intuitive understanding of how she wanted to be perceived and what each line meant on a personal level; her lyrics were not calculated but rather chiseled in stone by a thousand different moments in her life.
“Are You That Somebody?” has become the best Aaliyah song of all-time and her greatest musical achievement, a track that will forever remain prominent in the pantheon of quality R&B music.