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Music by VICE

Why Do Male R&B Singers Keep Remaking Aaliyah Songs?

We break it down with four examples.

by Drew Millard
Oct 22 2012, 3:55pm

It seems like a couple years ago a dam broke, and male R&B singers suddenly decided it was okay to start covering/remaking songs by Aaliyah. With every passing year, we miss the belated R&B singer a little bit more. It's rare that an artist's music is truly timeless, but it's becoming overwhelmingly clear that Aaliyah's best work—including classics like "One In A Million," "Try Again," "Hot Like Fire" and many others—might be just that. Many artists are still chasing the sound of the belated singer's One In A Million and eponymous albums, both of which by this point are pretty much certified classics. Though she wasn't a songwriter, she didn't need to be. Her true gift was her ability to interpret, using her voice and phrasing to translate the ineffable. Her albums are still informing the tenor of contemporary R&B—Timbaland and Miss Elliot's productions set something of a precedent within the realm of hip-hop, demanding that producers being their craziest, most futuristic shit whenever they've got a singer in the booth.

On Friday, the R&B singer Lloyd debuted a song entitled "Sexcapade," which is basically him and guest Roscoe Dash singing/rapping over Aaliyah's "Four Page Letter." I have no idea how controversial this might prove to be, but I'm guessing it's going to prove fairly controversial. Lloyd is one of my favorite R&B singers, but I enjoy him because of his lithe voice and penchant for straight-faced sexual absurdity, rather than his gravitas or ability to do right by Aaliyah. Lloyd is known as a guy who sings predictable, goofily sticky R&B jams that are mainly held up by the production, and, well, "Sexcapade" is precisely that. Someone will probably get mad at him for doing this, but seriously it's whatever. Lloyd is a non-threat to Aaliyah's legacy, and he's just behaving in the exact way that people expect him to.

Drake, meanwhile, recently released a song that the hip-hop community deemed vastly more threatening to Aaliyah's legacy . That was "Enough Said," and it featured an Aaliyah that had been absorbed nearly completely into the OVO aesthetic. It's produced by Drake's go-to beatsmith (and real-life BFF) Noah "40" Shebib, and is structured as something of a conversation between Drake and the deceased singer. "Tell me what you need," she sings as Drake is at his most greased-back, complaining about how hard it is to be Drake. A lot of people have given Drake shit for just going "Yeah wassup?" throughout the first third of this song, if you were doing a duet with a dead luminary, you probably wouldn't know what to say either. Drake's executive-producing a posthumous Aaliyah disc, and though music writers have no way of judging this accurately, they're saying Drake seems in over his head.

It's probably important to remember that this isn't the first time Drake has rapped over Aaliyah. He's got a well-documented, slightly creepy Aaliyah obsession, shouting her out multiple times on his recent Take Care and actually sampled her on "Unforgettable," a song with Young Jeezy from Thank Me Later. The central difference between "Enough Said" and "Unforgettable" is that with one track, Aaliyah's voice is a mere facet of the song, while with the other, the interplay between Aaliyah and Drake, a person who never met her and therefore can only try to understand her retroactively, is foregrounded. In short, it's creepier than hot fuck.

A singer who made a similar mistake to Drake was The-Dream, though his was less-publicized and perhaps infinitely more skeezy in its own way. He covered "One In A Million," without a doubt Aaliyah's most-cherished track. In it, he re-makes the beat, slightly altering the tempo but doing his best to recreate the music, slightly The-Dreamified. The terrifying part of the song, meanwhile, is his vocals, which sound eerily like Aaliyah's. It can be interpreted that he wants to inhabit her. It's the musical equivalent to dressing up as a dead person for Halloween, but nearly nailing it. The uncanny valley makes the track abjectly disturbing.

The only guy who nailed the act of respectfully covering Aaliyah, insanely enough, is Omarion, the guy who was in fucking B2K and is now the in-house hookman for Maybach Music Group, neither of which is exactly a bastion of critical respect. However, what Omarion realized that Drake, The-Dream and to a lesser extent Lloyd failed to grasp is that when you cover a song, you're supposed to interpret. That was perhaps Aaliyah's ultimate skill, and the best way to pay tribute is to interpret with the appropriate reverence. Omarion's always been an apt vocalist, but his voice is a strong baritone rather than The-Dream's ridiculously high tenor, so there's no way he could be reaching those same notes that Aaliyah could. The iconic Timbaland beat is left intact, and at the beginning of the cover, he says, "Paying homage like we should! We love you Aaliyah. We do this for you." Omarion understands that Aaliyah was person, not a symbol, and his cover reflects that. As Drake gears up to put the posthumous Aaliyah album out and as Lloyd does whatever goofy shit he's gonna do next, that simple fact—that in death, a person's personhood is not diminished—needs to be remembered.