Aaliyah – “Try Again”

Released: 2.29.00

Peak: #1

How to evaluate the Cult of Aaliyah? The acclamation of her cadre, seemingly grown more numerous, or at least more vocal, than when she lived, is enough to rouse anyone’s reasonable skepticism. After all, what gifted female R&B singer–Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, you name her–has not aroused minions consecrating themselves to the belle ideal she supposedly embodies? But I’ll admit now, Aaliyah’s death left a wider and deeper hole in pop than I’d anticipated at the time, and I’m not even talking about Timbaland having to turn to track mates like Nelly Furtado or (lol) Kiley Dean.

First, some context: Though historical distance retro-casts “Try Again” as a (the?) definitive Aaliyah single, the frictive warmth of those analog squiggles–like being enveloped in a roomful of amorous balloons–announced “Try Again” at the time as Tim2K. Here was the culmination of Timbaland’s ’90s, an exponential rise in tricky twitchery that simultaneously bade farewell to that aesthetic, as he prepared to sail off into the electro-orient. The guy could do no wrong, and he did not misquote Rakim in vain.

And yet, “Try Again” also unmistakably marked Aaliyah’s coming of age. I never suspected her of being the main attraction of One in a Million, or the epochal “Are You That Somebody?” which owed more not just to Tim but, I suspect, to his henchman Static Major (himself dead, of a brain hemorrhage, by decade’s end). But with the soundtrack to Romeo Must Die, the girl was branching out–coolly even-tempered romantic obsession on “I Don’t Wanna,” projecting fierce solidarity on the DMX duet “Come Back in One Piece,” and, as never before, generating a mood of both seduction and suspicion on “Try Again.”

My attention was slow in focusing because Aaliyah was deceptively innocuous about the romantic perils she navigated–no R&B star of her day projected a smaller personality. Alicia would gussy herself in straight-up bougie class, Mary J. egocentrically explored the perpetual psychodrama of the everyday diva, Mariah (ugh) plunged herself into delusions of operatic tragedy. And then there was Beyonce, almost too indestructible to relate to, born to the “oh no you didn’t” school of head-bob and ever willing to blunder romantically for the sake of the latter sassy finger-snap.

Unlike them all, Aaliyah foresaw the essential theme for the R&B thrush in the age of hip-hop: how to lay down with dawgs yet wake without fleas. Maybe that teen fling with the icksome R. Kelly fueled a skepticism palpable in her hesitant soprano, maybe that was just a vocal instinct that Timbaland and his assistants were perceptive enough to echo thematically. Gradually, she accreted a series of hits that unfolded, in hindsight, as a careful screening process of thuggish suitors.

The loss of such a subtle star allowed us to squander willful hope for greatness from the slim personas that followed in her wake. Ashanti, Ciara, Cassie, Rihanna–each sexpot marked an improvement on her predecessors, and yet none (fingers still crossed for Ri) has proven quite up to lacing up those dominatrix boots. Aaliyah’s small voice may have flirted shamelessly with anonymity, but her lesser descendants hopped right in the sack with it. And putting out so easily was never Aaliyah’s way.

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