DISCLAIMER: I want it to be known that I truly believe that R Kelly is a pedophile and sexual predator. The recent allegations that he is harboring a cult of young females as his sex slaves is another in a long line of sexual deviant behavior that he’s been accused of in the past 23 years. I no longer support him as a musician or individual. That being said, he was an integral part of the last two years of the New Jack Swing Era, and I’d be doing that era a disservice if I didn’t include the two classic albums he oversaw despite his sordid past and present.
1994 would be the last year that major record companies, urban radio stations and cable music outlets like BET would concentrate on New Jack Swing artists and music. Several New Jack Swing themed albums released in 1994 flopped, including releases by BBD, Keith Sweat and Ralph Tresvant. Hip Hop Soul, a homogenized and offshoot version of New Jack Swing, would soon take over as the new dominant sound of Urban America. Multi platinum albums by Brandy and Mary J. Blige in album would commence this new sound. However, there would be one last classic album released on May 24, 1994 that would the New Jack Swing Era’s final hurrah: Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number.”
Aaliyah Houghton was only 14 years old when her uncle, Barry Hankerson, head of Blackground Records and formerly married to Gladys Knight, paired her up with R Kelly, right around the same time his album “12 Play” was dominating the charts. Kelly wrote and produced all but one song on Aaliyah’s debut album. Aaliyah was the first artist that Kelly wrote for other than her himself. The duo would be a perfect fit musically. Personally, it would be the first controversy surrounding both artists in their respective careers. On August 31, 1994, Kelly and Aaliyah secretly married each other. They were 27 and 15 years old respectively at the date of their marriage. There were also unconfirmed rumors of Aaliyah being pregnant with Kelly’s baby. Despite the controversy surrounding the pair, the album became a classic.
The first single off the album, “Back and Forth,” was probably the last, great uptempo New Jack Swing song that was a major hit. When I first heard this song, I couldn’t believe this was a 15 year old girl singing this song. Throughout the New Jack Swing Era, there were several teenage girls who churned out hit records: Tracie Spencer and Shanice Wilson were two others that had major hits, but their stardom faded quickly, while Aaliyah just got bigger as she got older. Aaliyah’s voice on this single was both effortless and magnetic. Not as powerful or soulful as Spencer or Wilson, but more seasoned and smooth. “Back and Forth” would go to number five on the Billboard Pop charts and number one on the R&B charts.
The one song Kelly did not write on the album was the next and in my opinion the greatest song on the album, her cover of the Isley Brothers classic ballad: “At Your Best.” This song shows Aaliyah’s incredible vocal style at such a tender age. The song is about a person describing her unconditional love for her companion: “When I feel what I feel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell you so. You may not be in the mood to learn what you think you know. There are times when I find you want to keep yourself from me. When I don’t have the strength, I’m just a mirror of what I see. But at your best you are love. You’re a positive motivating force within my life. Should you ever feel the need to wonder why. Let me know, let me know.” The way she sings the words “Let Me Know” seduces the listener to the sensuality in her voice despite the fact she was only 14 when she recorded this song. Another major hit for Aaliyah, as this song went to number two on the R&B and number six on the Pop charts.
The final classic song from “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” is the title track, an uptempo ballad. While a great song, in retrospect, considering that Kelly wrote this song, the lyrics and content are incredibly disturbing. The song details a woman who’s involved with an older man. Despite the age difference, the woman(or young teen in Aaliyah’s case) is expressing her love and passion for the older man she has feelings for: “Here I am, and there you are, your eyes are calling me to your heart. All you gotta do is knock, I’ll let you in, and we will feel the passion that flows within. I don’t mean to be bold, but I gotta let you know, I gotta thang for you and I can’t let go. Age ain’t nothing but a number, throwing down ain’t nothing but a thang. This something I have for you it’ll never change.” The song is a beautiful ballad marred by the circumstances surrounding the relationship between the two.
Without a doubt, Aaliyah was one of the most beautiful women in the history of music, but she was only 14 when she began working with Kelly. She was neither physically nor mentally fully mature. Kelly manipulated this woman into a sexual relationship, which constituted statutory rape with or without the invalid marriage, which was quickly annulled. Hankerson, a few months after the illegal marriage was discovered, separated the two and Aaliyah left his label and signed with Atlantic Records. At Atlantic, she hooked up with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, who produced her next couple of albums before her tragic plane crash at the still tender age of 22. At the time of her death, Aaliyah had already scored three consecutive platinum albums and was well on her way to become one of the most prolific selling R&B female artists of all time. She was Rihanna and Beyoncé before they were even thought of. She was only a year older than Beyoncé and less than 10 years older than Rihanna. One of the greatest tragedies in music history.
This ends my retrospective on the New Jack Swing Era. It was apropos as 2017 was the 30th anniversary of the sound that was launched on November 24, 1987 with the release of the very first album I reviewed, Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever.” It was the last legendary era in R&B music. It was the music that was the soundtrack of my early adulthood.
AGE AIN’T NOTHING BUT A NUMBER-TRACK LISTING
1 Intro 1:30
2 Throw Your Hands Up 3:34
3 Back & Forth 3:51
4 Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number 4:14
5 Down With the Clique 3:24
6 At Your Best (You Are Love) 4:52
7 No One Knows How to Love Me Quite Like You Do 4:07
8 I’m So into You 3:26
9 Street Thing 4:58
10 Young Nation 4:41
11 Old School 3:17
12 I’m Down 3:16
13 Back & Forth 3:44