AALIYAH: ONE IN A MILLION (1996)
1) Beats 4 Da Streets (Intro); 2) Hot Like Fire; 3) One In A Million; 4) A Girl Like You; 5) If Your Girl Only Knew; 6) Choosey Lover; 7) Got To Give It Up; 8) 4 Page Letter; 9) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 10) Giving You More; 11) I Gotcha Back; 12) Never Givin' Up; 13) Heartbroken; 14) Never Comin' Back; 15) Ladies In Da House; 16) The One I Gave My Heart To; 17) Came To Give Love (Outro).
Like so many albums around it, One In A Million suffers from ceedeetis: it pastes its limited amount of attractions over such a vast surface that, by the end of it, I feel a strange sort of satisfaction, as if having just returned from the task of gathering the remains of a shipwreck scattered all over the beaches of a desert island.
But if you do gather the best tracks together and trim them down to, say, half their length (actually, length of the individual songs is not a problem per se; they usually do not seriously run over four minutes, with the exception of 'Choosey Lover', which is really two songs in one), anyway, if you do this, it becomes easier to appreciate One In A Million as a high-class R'n'B album whose creators were sincerely interested in developing a new kind of groove sound rather than merely making an extra pile of bucks on the existing trends.
I say 'creators' because, again, it is unclear just how much Aaliyah herself was involved in all this except for just building up the required feeling. Some of the songs, in fact, are completely dominated by Timbaland's production, e. g. 'Hot Like Fire', where he straightjackets Aaliyah into a futuristic-robotic vocal part complementing his tricky choice of synth tones — I'm not complaining, because the effect is clever and inspiring, but whether Aaliyah's presence is necessary here, I have no idea about that. Could just as well be Margaret Thatcher.
Likewise, 'If Your Girl Only Knew' is mostly memorable for its hypnotic "post-disco" bassline, lovingly wrapped in a web of funky guitar and even electric organ (!). However, on the softer, balladeering stuff Timbaland does allow to let the girl loose, and if you are fond of her singing style, 'Heartbroken', '4 Page Letter', and the title track can all be lovely; singalong choruses and moderately tasteful arrangements don't hurt, either.
The best news is that there is not a single track on the record that feels really strained or 'image-carving': the forced street vibe of 'Throw Your Hands Up' has been purged completely, and pretty much every single track gives you a sentimental, fragile Aaliyah — very soft, very smooth (she used to be a big Sade fan, and it shows), ultimately, boring, but true to the soul, at least.
The non-Timbaland tracks are generally weaker, because there's no experiment (many of them just sound like standard Whitney Houston fare), but, odd enough, the one song that stands above everything else is a V. H. Herbert production: a terrific cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up'. When Marvin recorded it in 1979, he sang it in falsetto, for understandable reasons; Aaliyah gives a very faithful rendition, down to the individual intonations of the syllables, but she sings it in her natural voice, and the effect is even more believable and seductive than on the original (one could do without the extraneous rap sections, though). They also slow down the tempo just a bit, and enhance the power of the rhythm section, so it doesn't at all sound like a retro-disco sound, but, on the contrary, looks appropriately modern.
Things don't work so well on the 'Old School/New School' version of the Isleys' 'Choosey Lover', because, frankly speaking, the 'old school' part, graced with hair-metal guitar, sounds very much like mainstream Eighties school (bad, bad, bad!), and the 'new school' part was not produced by Timbaland and is therefore rather generic. The only saving grace of this and every other so-so track on here is the singing. It's hard not to like the singing.
One In A Million has received tremendous critical praise, with people calling it one of the most epoch-defining R'n'B albums of the time and suchlike. I wouldn't know, and I wouldn't care much if it really had the kind of historical influence as is sometimes assigned to it — whether that would be a good thing is debatable. But it deserves to be heard, at least the better half of it, for combining some exciting approaches to the genre with the talents of one of the best singers in the genre, so my heart feels fine about it, surreptitiously giving the record a fast thumbs up while the brain is still collecting itself, trying to come up with some nasty cynical statement. We'll hastily leave it in this state and move on to the next one.