For those of us who enjoy the luxury that is the four season yearly cycle knows that around this time of the gauntlet that is the winter solstice, where it just felt like that crisp air of October now seems like eons past; on the flip side, the new beginnings of spring is equally as far away.
A pair of birthdays land on this particular day, both of these figures separated by twenty years, both are well known for their abilities to use their voice as instruments that continue to elevate the art form...and a select number of the listeners that are paying close enough attention.
The name Aaliyah and it's many variations holds various meanings in the Arabic and Hebrew traditions that include ascension, to exalt and sublime feelings. Sade on the other hand is of Yoruba origin with "honor confers a crown" as its meaning, Finnish as well for "ray of light". Consider her debut single in early 1984 ("Your Love Is King"), both aspects are lusciously placed on the table and established to the external world within the records first few seconds. Not a bad first impression, amirite??
This piece is not to compare the two on their respective bodies of work due to one departing before reaching her full creative potential and the other enjoying longevity by her direction and keeping a low profile in between projects (present count: twenty days from now will make her longest hiatus to date, ten years to be exact since "Solder Of Love", not counting singles released in between).
Instead, the primary focus will be placed on the works on and around the year 2000. This is the only time in their respective careers when they both had new works out around the same time. 236 days separate the release of Sade's fifth work "Lovers Rock" in November 2000, Aaliyah's self titled third debuted on July 2001.
Another commonality is the lack of availability of their physical music. Veteran vinyl lovers (such as yours truly) can attest to this lack of Sade's post 80's works and Aaliyah's works in general. Re-issues from the former are not common which easily drives the cost up for the original pressings.
In the case of Aaliyah, there are feelings of confusion to accompany the obvious void. 2021 will mark twenty years since her tragic plane crash in the Bahamas in the summer of 2001. The music industry has shifted from physical media to mp3 to streaming since, somehow Aaliyah's label and estate has yet to release any of the final two (plus the posthumous "I Care 4 U") albums she recorded to the public after the initial releases. There appears to be in fighting between the two entities as a root cause, Aaliyah fans old and potentially new suffer as a result.
Even the analog enthusiasts among us know that streaming is here to stay yet does not favor the artists upfront. Just in terms of finances, the estate has missed out on tens of millions of dollars easily in that span of time, when you take into consideration her sustained popularity and the landscape of RnB devolving from where it was when our subjects had projects out near each other.
Spotify, Tidal, Apple all have Aaliyah's debut which continues to perform well, along with other scattered guest appearances and soundtrack songs. At the time of this posting, youtube remains the only platform that has "One In A Million", "Aaliyah" and "I Care For U" available to stream (for "free" at least).
Between the both of these forces, there is this indelible sense of sultriness. They both represent a bygone era before social media unveiled what feels like every nook and cranny of an artist's life on/off camera and/or stage. Complimenting that air of mystery, their respective style of dresses were classically feminine in that it revealed only enough to keep the imagination running wild and sure to come back for more.
Contrast that to many of today's artists who have to rely on (or perhaps are instructed to?) revealing more of themselves to create some separation from their contemporaries and/or relegate the impressionable minds of their followers into a lower frequency, strengthening the energetic tether between the "star" and it's observers.
I remember as a youth during Aaliyah's late 90's stretch, there were frequent observations and conversations amongst my peers around the lunch tables regarding her left eye regularly being covered and her affinity for dark sunglasses. Little did we know back then about the eye symbol's significance but that's a whole other discussion.
When "Lovers Rock" released on November 13th 2000, it was the band's first offering following "Love Deluxe" eight years and two weeks prior. Opening at number 3 on the Billboard 200, "By Your Side" is selected as the lead single, peaks at no. 2 on the U.S. dance charts and has sold four million plus since. Not bad for the slow jam and near decade long lay off between projects.
A mellifluous tone to bring in the new century before everything would radically change within the year succeeding the release. "By Your Side" was a track like numerous other Sade tracks that was difficult to get away from for long, before succumbing to it's evident potency. It had performed very well across many music platforms.
Other standout tracks include: "King Of Sorrow", gloomy as the verses suggest, it is ironically one of the more repeatable numbers. She also looks the most stunning in the video component, playing a gorgeous Mother of three tirelessly scrambling through the vibrant streets of San Juan, PR.; "Flow" can arguably be ranked highly (top ten) on her all time love songs, which sounds even better as daylight fades and settles deeper into the lunar cycle; "It's Only Love That Gets You Through" and the title track are of the classic ballads Sade is known around the world for.
Meanwhile, Aaliyah doesn't keep her clientele waiting for too long during time following "One In A Million", leading into summer 2001. "Are You That Somebody" is one of the highlights of summer 1998, is widely considered to be at the very least in her top three signature songs and one of the standout moments of the decade. The baby cooing effect in the background may or may not have pushed it over to the top of that proverbial hill.
"I Don't Wanna" is out within the first two weeks of the new century. Led by an acoustic guitar, Aaliyah is seeking to return to form with a lost love. Arguably her most underrated track of this period and/or overall; "Try Again" arrives a month later on the 22nd, is an instant masterpiece as a filling starter dish for the "Romeo Must Die" soundtrack along with her new artistic direction.
Another underrated gem of her catalogue is also from that soundtrack, "Are You Feelin' Me", an essential with her partner on the boards, Timbaland; "Come Back In One Piece", a rare second single for a soundtrack in June (a collaboration of the classic variety with the then red hot "Romeo" co-star Dark Man X); finally the first single from "Aaliyah", "We Need A Resolution" arrives in April 2001.
There was another notable moment occurring in June 2000 on the red carpet of the MTV Movie awards. Beyoncè, still a member of Destiny's Child is playing correspondent for the network and conducted a brief interview with Aaliyah. Little did the world know the significance of this meet at the time, which only lasted all but 60 seconds.
The encounter was positive, Bey asked Aaliyah about upcoming film prospects, to which Aaliyah didn't get into specifics but had likely signed on to play her final role as Akasha in Anne Rice's "Queen Of The Damned" by this point.
Those that know of the present day Bey for being far more reserved and light on words in public is friendly and loquacious during this exchange. Aaliyah is radiant in her star quality, the first example of this being her first ever televised appearance in Ed McMahon's "Star Search" talent show about a decade prior.
"We Need A Resolution" as mentioned before is the lead single for her final run (written by Static Major). While recording the video, she explained the concept as a lack of communication in a relationship. Sometimes you don't come to a resolution, "at the end of the song, they really don't resolve anything and that happens in life." There is a lot to be said about her level of emotional maturity for shedding light on this level of tension as opposed to the usual tired narrative of mud slinging and finger pointing as it pertains to obstacles.
Timbo perfectly contrasts the theme with the mid-tempo flute-like friendly sound that only Babygirl could dance all over. It should also be noted that due to problems with Blackground records (the label ran by Aaliyah's Uncle Barry Hankerson & cousin Jomo), he only joined aboard to produce for the record on the week it was meant to be finalized. Somehow by the end of those sessions, the first two singles finally prepared.
"More Than A Woman" (also penned by Static) is interesting in that it could be a whole genre in itself. It's sonic foundation set to a futuristic and kinetic aesthetic, showcasing yet again how ahead of the pack the collaborative pair was. Interestingly enough, the video portion was shot right before that critical trip to the Bahamas due to Background's lack of confidence in the song's potential chart placement.
"Rock The Boat" (also penned by Static) is symbolic as babygirl's swan song, the one she and her production crew flew to the Bahamas in late August 2001 to shoot. Unfortunately the final moments of her life took place there before taking that fateful flight that killed her and eight colleagues from the production. The slower number along with her soft touches vocally is a perfect mood for any 'kissing after-dark' agenda, extra extra bonus if the moment is shared on a vessel under a dark sky.
As a bonus, "Come Over", originally recorded as a demo back in 1999 and left shelved before the track was given to Changing Faces for their "Visit Me" album a year later. Three years after that, it popped up on the compilation album "I Care 4 U" as a duet with the vocalist Tank. Very interesting turn of events when you consider the one collaborative link between the two (Changing Faces also had a cameo in the summer 1996 classic "Hot Like Fire" remix video shoot) acts but I digress.
Sade and Aaliyah occupied different roles on the pop culture landscape. Aaliyah unfortunately met her demise at 22, leaving behind so much potential and many unanswered questions. Theories of foul-play so egregious, Mary J. Blige even alluded to concerns about what happened in the days following. At the time, this was rare insight into the depth of the industry's control over these artists. Fast forward the twenty years, there is a much deeper understanding of that matrix and still much more to learn.
Sade at 61 years is working on a new record, according to her long time bandmate Stuart Matthewman as of summer 2018. Known for not wanting to put anything out unless she/they feel compelled to do so, anytime in the very near future would be right on time to send the world those love vibrations. "When we're happy, then we'll let everyone else hear it", Stuart said.
Aaliyah once stated about Sade that "she stays true to her style, no matter what... she's an amazing artist, an amazing performer...and I absolutely love her." It's hard to imagine that Sade didn't share the same sentiments about Babygirl.