AALIYAH: AGE AIN'T NOTHING BUT A NUMBER (1994)
1) Intro; 2) Throw Your Hands Up; 3) Back And Forth; 4) Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number; 5) Down With The Clique; 6) At Your Best (You Are Love); 7) No One Knows How To Love Me Quite Like You Do; 8) I’m So Into You; 9) Street Thing; 10) Young Nation; 11) Old School; 12) I’m Down; 13) Back And Forth (Mr. Lee And R Kelly Mix).
Bland, effortless R'n'B was certainly not invented by Aaliyah, but she did have the unlucky fate of being born right into the midst of it. I do not know how much creative control she had in the studio when recording her three albums — not much, apparently, since she never wrote or arranged anything herself — but it is hardly indecent to state that her legend was, at all times, mostly in the hands of her "seconds", in this particular case, producer/songwriter R. Kelly's, and therefore, these records do not so much tell the story of Aaliyah The Artist as they tell you what was "hot" and what was "not" about R'n'B in the mid- to late Nineties.
The title of the album is a thinly veiled hint at Aaliyah's (14 at the time the songs were recorded) flirt (and even a short-lived marriage) with R. Kelly himself, and, while I might somewhat cautiously agree with the statement in general — and so might pedophiles all over the world, for that matter — in the case of Aaliyah, her age was definitely more than just a number: it meant that she, an obviously gifted vocalist, would be exactly whatever her mentors would want her to be. And they didn't want much: they just wanted her to rap like Mary J. Blige and to sing sweet sappy ballads like Whitney Houston.
Now I'm not much of a Whitney Houston fan, but let me tell you this: Aaliyah is much more convincing as a balladeer than when she is practicing these street-wise funky grooves. Maybe it's because she never really had as much "street culture" inside of her as they sometimes try to make it seem — she was, after all, strictly middle-class, and "tough" numbers like 'Throw Your Hands Up' just don't cut the mustard. R. Kelly must have known that, since after that particularly dumb album opener, he mostly keeps the "tough" stuff to himself, on a few numbers playing the hip-hop counterpart to Aaliyah's 'sensitive' personality. Most of the time it sounds very stupid, but at least his parts help break up the monotonousness of the balladry.
The "music" on here is best left in peace — if you've heard one generic mid-90's R'n'B album, you've heard them all — but some of the vocal choruses are pleasant and catchy, and amazingly, the record's best asset, after all, IS Aaliyah's singing: seductive, but not cooing, making use of melisma but not going overboard with it, and, in general, coming off very naturally as if she really meant all these things. As it often happens, the best tracks are not the album's main singles ('Back And Forth', a so-so dance groove, and a sugary cover of the Isley Brothers' 'You Are Love'), but rather the shadowy, ambiguous title track; the Stevie Wonder-ish (R. Kelly must have had stolen Stevie's chromatic harmonica some time in the past) 'Street Thing'; and 'Young Nation', the closest thing to an anthemic track but still a pleasantly subdued one. Kudos to R. Kelly, by the way, for at least realizing this girl should have been reared in the Sade mold rather than the Madonna one.
So what's the resolution? This is an album strictly for the heart, not for the brain (unless you want to spend some time pondering what lines like 'young nation under a groove, keeping it smooth with a jazz attitude' really mean), but even the heart orders a general thumbs down — for inconsistency, occasional phoniness, and propagating sex with minors (okay, maybe not). Nevertheless, she does have a very, very lovely voice.
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