In 2001, a month before her untimely and tragic death, Aaliyah blessed us with her self-titled third studio album. Arguably her best album, Aaliyah was a perfect marriage of the R&B princess’ ever-understated vocals and her musical relationship with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, producing classics songs with great crossover appeal.

Timbaland in particular steered the production to a more accessible pop version of his previous work on the One In A Million LP. Static Major picked up some of the other album tracks and his production perfectly complimented Timbaland’s work on the record.

But what really makes this album so good is the fact that it’s Aaliyah all over. She brought her absolute A-game to this one. The thing about Aaliyah is she was so dear to most of us as we feel we grew up with her and saw her develop since the young 14 year old girl who hit the scene all the way back when. Her music provided a soundtrack for our youth. […am I showing my age here!?]

Some people I know even began music, singing or dancing because of her. She affected many, but that’s because she was the far-from-average, ‘average girl’. She could be your easily be your friend (or girlfriend, you feel me fellas!?), but she was equally a star. It was this crossover appeal that made her so admired and adored the world over.

What we saw with the release of this album was an Aaliyah who was more mature in her vocals and more experimental in her style, lyrical content and writing. Couple this with her film appearances, and you have a public icon and perfectly suitable role model for your daughter or sister. Never resorting to wearing ridiculously skimpy outfits or falling out of clubs drunk for publicity, Aaliyah was most certainly at the top of her game. And this album was the tangible proof of it, that captured that moment in her career forever for our pleasure, to replay at any given moment.

Opening with the monster ‘We Need A Resolution’ Aaliyah sets the standard right off the bat with a song that has Middle Eastern influences backed by Timbo’s pounding drums and vocal percussion and is written in such a fantastically relate-able fashion with her vocal adlibs asking ‘Who should be hurt, who should be blamed?’ Although the song didn’t perform amazingly in the charts, it still remains an R&B classic.

The goodness continues throughout the album with topics ranging from telling her man to get gone on ‘Never No More,’ testing her patience on ‘U Got Nerve’ and her lack of tolerance on ‘I Refuse.’ The slower tracks on the album give Aaliyah space to shine with songs like ‘It’s Whatever,’ where she comes with a more soulful vibe.

On the whole, the album remains mid tempo but hard hitting in it’s topics and attitude, particularly on ‘Extra Smooth,’ ‘Read Between The Lines’ and ‘I Can Be.’ ‘What If’ oozes attitude and is particularly experimental in it’s style, creating a hybrid between R&B and Rock that is complimented by Aaliyah’s uncharacteristically fierce vocal delivery. Compare this with ‘Loose Rap,’ led by a playful ditty and you begin to see that we have a very well rounded artist on our hands.

‘Rock The Boat’ is a standout track that shows us a sexier side of Aaliyah without cliché and cringy lyrics and a vocal that is in equal parts sweet, sexy and tasteful, a combination that I believe only she was blessed with. A slow jam in R&B music that doesn’t talk about the subject explicitly delivered without making groaning noises make this yet another timeless piece of work.

‘More Than A Woman’ remains one of my favourite Pop songs. I can listen to that song all day. Where it is busy in it’s production (the drum production is stellar), it is sparse in it’s writing and on paper, nonsensical, however, Aaliyah gives us all the lyrics that we need to piece together what she is talking about.

Once again, there’s nothing fancy about her vocal and probably anyone who could half hold a tune could sing this song. But could they sing it like Aaliyah? Could they go in to the vocal booth and give the sweet tone and contain themselves from filling the purpose built gaps? Probably not. Less is more. Aaliyah sings the backside off this song without singing it at all. Pop perfection.

Most people will agree when I say that the song of all songs on this album is ‘I Care 4 U.’ Aaliyah came to sing on this track. No understated vocals, just perfectly selected and placed vocal runs and ad libs. Slipping effortlessly between her deeper vocal tones to her head voice, her voice synergises the instrumentation to create a new magical energy. Arguably her finest vocal performance on record, this is the Aaliyah that will always be remembered. Switching from deep tones to sweet tones in a heartbeat, she was so very versatile in her music.

She created some of R&B music’s classic material in her all too short career and her influence lives on today. Aaliyah’s self titled album lives on as a testament to what I like to call Zen R&B, the art of singing without singing your face off. The art of writing without falling into trends and fads. The art of being sexy and desirable to males and females alike, young and old, without having to objectify yourself and keeping your respect, dignity and pride. Aaliyah always did just enough to show us that she was ALL that, but never too much.

Her presence is sorely missed.

Today, on what would have been her 32nd birthday, Happy Birthday to you Aaliyah. May your legacy fly on forever.