aaliyah-age-aint-nothing-but-a-number aaliyah-age-aint-nothing-but-a-number

Aaliyah Week: 'Age Ain't Nothing But A Number' & The Isley Brothers Cover That Placed Aaliyah On The Map

Former Jive A&R Jeff Sledge discusses the making of Aaliyah's debut album, while Chris Jasper, original composer of "At Your Best," details how the song was created.

Aaliyah broke onto the music scene in 1994 as a young and eager teenager, ready to finally launch her music career. After landing a deal with Jive Records thanks to her uncle/manager Barry Hankerson, the anticipated arrival of her Age Ain't Nothing But A Number album brought a new wave of R&B ballads sprinkled in between hard knock beats.

From the "Intro" to the "Back & Forth (Remix)," the sound of the '90s was in full swing under the executive production of R. Kelly. Aaliyah's fleecy vocals blended seamlessly while the track list transitioned from the posse anthem "Down with the Clique" to the wine-down of "Old School." With the previous visual arrival of "Back & Forth," the anticipation only began to build when people placed a face and stylish look of the voice behind the radio hit. And thus, a star was born.

Below, former Jive A&R Jeff Sledge and original composer/writer of The Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)" explain why Aaliyah was years ahead of her future musical domination.

How Aaliyah's Introduction To The Music Industry Set Her Up For Stardom

Although R. Kelly was primarily responsible for crafting the sound of 'Age Ain't Nothing But A Number,' Jeff Sledge had the task of sequencing the album in a way that allowed you to play the project from top to bottom.

Sledge, who can currently be heard dropping industry gems on the Pop Life Podcast, recalls how Aaliyah's debut came to be.

VIBE: What did you think of the talent that Jive was home to at the time?
Jeff Sledge: I always say that our roster, even up until the end, our roster was the best roster assembled. Even back then there was KRS-One, Will Smith was there at that time, R. Kelly of course, UGK, E-40, Mystikal, Keith Murray, we just kept getting more and more great artists as time went on. The roster was crazy.

And Aaliyah eventually became a part of that roster. On a podcast with Billboard, you said that her uncle Barry Hankerson, who was managing R. Kelly, brought her to Jive?
He had brought Aaliyah to Jive and I think he started bring her to Jive when she was probably around 11 or 12? She was young when she put out the first album, but she was like 11 or 12 when he first started shopping her to Jive. The guy who owned Jive at the time, Clive Calder, he’s also an A&R person by trade. He was basically head of the A&R department. Barry kept shopping her to him and he saw something, but he said, ‘She’s not ready, she’s still young, she needs to be developed more.’ Barry would go back and develop her more. Aaliyah was in a performing arts high school in Detroit, like the Fame kind of school, but for Detroit. She was always a creative girl, that was her path, singing and dancing. Barry kept bringing her back. I think when she was 14 was when Clive said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to take a shot at her.’ And they signed her and started to put together her work on that first album.

You said that you guys didn’t sign her right away, but did you notice a star quality in her when she first came to Jive at 11 or 12?
I wasn’t there at the 11 or 12 stages. When I first met her, it was probably when she first got signed. But again, 14 is still really young. She was in 10th grade or something. She grew up to be a beautiful woman, but she was a cute girl and she was very personable, very nice. In talking to her, she had ideas of her own of what she wanted to do and what kind of records she wanted to make. All that stuff that she was doing back then with the hair over the eye, a lot of that was her. Some of it was Robert [Kelly], he definitely had some influence on her style as well, but a lot of it was her. She had her own vision, her imaging grew. It didn’t fall off because she didn’t remind you of anybody. It was her knowing what she wanted to do and how she wanted to look. Even as a young kid you could tell that she had that something.

How do you think Aaliyah’s style and sound fit into that list of artists that were on Jive?
With those guys, I don’t want to say her style didn’t fit. E-40 was from the Bay Area so they had their own sound. KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest were from New York so they had their own sound as well. I don’t know if her sound fit with them, but she was a great addition to the label because we didn’t have a young girl like that rapping or singing. A girl that was straight up R&B like that, we didn’t have anybody. It was a hole that she filled.

When it came time to begin the process for her debut album, what was the brainstorming session like behind it?
To be honest with you, it wasn’t really much of a brainstorming session because Barry was managing Robert. He was coming off of 12 Play so he was on fire. It wasn’t much of a brainstorm because Robert was the creative genius. Barry said, ‘Hey my guy who I’m managing, he's going to make the record with my niece,’ and that was it. Nobody disagreed because Robert was a genius. It was like, ‘Well, of course, why not?’ It wasn’t that deep. It wasn’t that hard to figure out that that would be a good idea.

R. Kelly seemed like he had that Midas Touch when it came to R&B music at that time.
Absolutely, he was starting to produce for a lot of people at that time too, because 12 Play was such a big record. Even on the first record, there was still a lot of people saying he was trying to be Guy, be like Aaron Hall, and by the second record when he came out with “Bump N Grind,” “Your Body Is Calling,” that stuff started to go away and people started to say, ‘Oh yeah, this dude is the sh**,’ especially when they found out that he was producing and writing everything on his own. Him doing the album with Aaliyah was easy, that was a lay up.

I’m assuming it was always the plan to have R. Kelly do the producing and songwriting or were there any discussions to bring in other producers or songwriters along the way?
Not that I remember, Robert was going to do the whole record. Clive was a publishing guru, so he and Barry weren’t trying to cut a lot of people in on the album to share the publishing. They said we’re going to do this with one guy and the publishing will be easy to deal with because it’s one person.

On that same podcast, you said the team at Jive didn’t hear the album until it was finished. What was the team’s reaction when you heard it in full?
It was dope, it was the sh**, it was crazy. Robert and her made the record in Chicago in the summer and she was off to school. She would fly to Chicago, fly down from Detroit, and they’d make the records in the two months that she was off and she’d hang out in Chicago, pick up the vibes. Her and Robert spent a lot of time together going to arcades and bowling so that Robert could catch her vibe and write the songs that fit her and what kids her age and her friends were talking about. When we finally heard the album we were blown away because the album was dope. It was basically like listening to an R. Kelly album, but with a little girl singing. Obviously the subject matter wasn’t sexual, but the overall production and the sound of the record was like a Robert album as a little girl. It’s like the first time people listened to the first Lil' Kim album, it’s almost like listening to Biggie as a girl. It was the same kind of thing, it was crazy.

Once the album was released, what was the reaction from the masses?
People loved the first single, “Back and Forth.” The first single blew and people loved the video because it was a very fun, energetic video. It represented what 15- or 16-year-old kids were doing at that time or dressing like at that time. It was a perfect depiction of what kids her age around the country were doing. But she had her own little style so it influenced little girls to start dressing like her or doing the hair over the eye thing and the sunglasses. You started seeing a lot of Aaliyah clones. It was great, it was amazing. “At Your Best” was the next single and that was dope. When Robert did the remix, it really took the album to another place. The remix was so crazy. That remix, to me, is what really blew the album to the stratosphere.

Frank Ocean recently covering that song brought back that nostalgic feeling people felt when they first heard Aaliyah's rendition.
It was the Isley Brothers record originally, but her version is actually way more famous than theirs.

When I got the album, I didn’t know it was a cover of the Isley Brothers. I always thought it was Aaliyah’s original song.
If I’m not mistaken, I don’t think the Isley Brothers version was ever a single. It was like an album cut. A lot of people didn’t really know that because it wasn’t a big album single. It wasn’t even one of their more popular album cuts. They have a lot of album cuts that are very popular too and it wasn’t even that. It was this hidden gem. I think it was a Chicago thing. Knowing Robert, it was probably a big record in Chicago and he just liked the record and he just decided to do it over.

Do you know how the title of the album came to be?
With that type of stuff with the title and a lot of the creative stuff, it wasn’t even Barry Hankerson per se, a lot of it was Robert. If I’m not mistaken, but I believe Robert named the album that. He was really the executive producer. On the creative side it was him. The only thing he didn’t do on the creative side was sequence the album. I sequenced the album. Barry Hankerson let me sequence the album which was dope because I didn’t think he would let me. When I shared with him the sequence, he said, ‘You like the way this sounds running like this?’ I said, ‘Yeah it sounds dope.’ He said, ‘That’s the sequence then.’ It was just that simple. It was me and him, there was no big meeting, he came by the office one day and I wrote the sequence out to him. That was it. But naming the album, that was all Robert. He was the driving force behind it.

On the opener of the album there’s a voice from a woman named Tia Hawkins, that’s also heard throughout the album. Do you know how she was brought on board?
I would assume that was Robert, but I don’t remember that. It was so long ago. I’m going to assume that was Robert. If anybody was on there rapping, that was probably Robert bringing her in or maybe it was one of Aaliyah’s friends.

I feel like Tia had that hard side that Aaliyah probably didn’t possess in terms of sound or vocals. What did you think about that contrast between the gritty sound mixed with Aaliyah’s angelic vocals?
Robert was like a street guy so he was always going to find a way to have that street energy around. He always used to figure out a way to put a rapper on something or make the drums harder or do a remix. He was that guy, so I’m sure that was Robert wanting to balance the album out and make sure it had a hard edge to it. Aaliyah was a sweet girl. She wasn’t no prissy little girl either, so I could see her wanting to have that energy on the record as well. People, especially at that time she was so young, people thought that she was this sweet little girl. She was a sweet little girl, but she liked rap and whatever else was going on at the time like all the other young kids at the time. I could see her wanting to have that energy on her record because that’s what was hot.

What did you think about the fusion between Aaliyah’s vocals and R. Kelly’s hip hop influenced beats?
I think that was the genius of the record. The fact that she had that really light voice, and then at that time, he had that hard edge, and big drums, I think that was the genius of the record. He was able to marry the two. The sweet and the hard at the same time.

When you first met her, did you have a different vision of what you thought the album would’ve sounded like?
Hmm, I don’t think so. I just wanted to see what Robert was going to do. I was excited about Robert making the record because he was a genius. That’s what I wanted to see, where he was going to go with it. I didn’t have a particular vision or thought in my head, like, ‘Her album should sound like this or that.’ If someone is making your record, you trust them that they create something dope. I just wanted to see what he was going to do with it.

Just from the album cover, you could tell by Aaliyah's style that she was about to be a different type of artist. When you first met her, what did you think about her fashion?
I thought it was dope. There were rumors about if she had one eye, crazy sh** because she always used to wear her hair over her eye. A lot of people used to think, ‘She’s blind in one eye that’s why she wears her hair like that.’ But obviously when you met her you realize no, she has normal vision. She was cool, a nice young girl. Her and her mom were very close, and her mom is Barry’s sister. Her mom would always be with her. They were a nice family getting it in the entertainment business.

On that same podcast, you talked about the mysteriousness with her eye being covered or her sunglasses. Did you think that that style would continue onto her next album, One in a Million? She had shades on that album cover as well, and it wasn’t until her last album cover that she was bare face in a sense.
I didn’t know how long she was going to continue to ride that wave, obviously it was working, but what bugged me out was how many young girls started copying her style. That’s what really blew me away. Seeing young girls wearing the ski hats with their hair out, their hair doobie down and the sunglasses and the Doc Martins and the big jeans, like the tomboy-ish dressing. That’s what bugged me out, like how many people copied her swag. Even now, it’s more than 20 years later and you still see variations of that. It’s not exactly the same, but you still see young girls with a little ski hat with their hair down and sunglasses on. It’s still going. It still bugs me out how many young girls today love her. She’s sadly been passed away for a minute, but it’s like her influence is still going. I met a girl group previously and one of them is 18 and the other two are 20. One of the girls said, ‘Our influence is Aaliyah,’ and I’m like that’s crazy. You’re only 20 years old, you’re really as old as her first album. She’s still influencing people to this day. That blows my mind.

As a new artist during that time, why was Aaliyah granted that free reign to groom herself in terms of fashion instead of maybe the label inserting their opinion on how they want to market her in terms of looks?
I think a lot of that is because of the way she came to Jive through Barry Hankerson and with Robert being involved, it was set up so that she wouldn’t have to [change]. The label wasn’t involved until the record got done. Then we went into marketing, promotion, getting the records on the radio, some publicity. Previous to that, it was set up so she could make her record on her own without anybody being all over her. When it came to style, it was the same thing. ‘This is what we’re doing,’ they didn’t come in really asking. It was, 'This is how she’s going to dress, this is what she’s going to wear. It wasn’t like, ‘What do y’all think? Do you think she should do this?’ It wasn’t like that.

Walk me through the process of sequencing the album, like how many songs you were presented with. Did you have to cut out any tracks?
By the time I was presented with the songs, they were the songs but there weren’t in any order. The process was simple. People sequence albums all kinds of different ways. Some people like to put the hits on the front, ‘You have to put the single as the third song,’ some people do it that way. But I always like the sequence the album so that it moves and flows from top to bottom so it’s not like, ‘I like the first five and then the rest of the album I don’t listen to.’ That’s what I did. I sat with it and picked out what worked best. I know I put “Back and Forth” earlier in the record because that’s what you should do, but I said I want the next one to balance it out. At that time it was still cassette tapes so you would make a tape of the sequence, then listen to it over and over and say this song should go here, this song should go there, back and forth until it gets right.

Some artists seek to tell a story in a sense, on their albums. Since you were presented with the songs, how did you seek to assist that narrative?
I wasn’t really trying to tell a story. I just wanted the album to flow well and you could listen to it from the first song to the last song and not feel like it’s out of balance. I wasn’t really trying to tell a story, I just wanted people to be able to put the album on for the first song and listen all the way through without skipping or listen to the record to the point where you’re like ‘I like the first six and then I never listen to seven through 14.’ I don’t like to do that. That’s what it was, it wasn’t about a story. I just wanted it to move right.

When her debut album dropped, did you and the label gain a sense that you had something epic on your hands or were you guys just living in the moment from the public’s reaction?
You could tell, because “Back & Forth” was already exploding so there was a big pull from the marketplace for her record because the single was so big. Robert was on fire, he also had records in the marketplace so people realized that he was doing her record and “Back and Forth” was a big record and Robert was a big writer and producer and artist as well. It was pretty easy to see, to feel rather.

Around the time of the album, the rumors circulated about her and R. Kelly and even VIBE I believe broke that news. How did Jive seek to place the attention back on the music?
We just kept trying to pump the records out. It was a horrible scandal, a horrible situation for everybody involved so we tried to keep the focus on the music and the videos and it wasn’t like now with social media. Twitter wasn’t on fire with it. But once VIBE did that article, it definitely put a whole different energy around the project and about her and Robert. Previously to that, nobody even thought like that. They just said, ‘Oh, Robert produced her record,’ and that was it.

What was the atmosphere like at Jive once VIBE printed that article?
It was very uncomfortable and I’ll leave it at that [laughs].

Was the record label worried that the quality of the music would get eclipsed by the controversy?
Yeah of course, you want people to focus on the music and not the controversy that’s going on, but it snowballed and it got a life of its own. We were definitely trying to keep people focused on the record because the record was selling. It still sold extremely well. We were trying to keep that going, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Following her debut, what did you think of Aaliyah’s musical progression?
I thought it was amazing. Timbaland and Missy were incredible. It was awesome, it’s like they went to another place with it. I think people are still trying to figure out how to copy that sound and that swag now. It was great. I was a fan of hers regardless if she was on the label or not. She was still dope as hell.

 

How The Original Version Of "At Your Best" Was Composed

Chris Jasper lives, eats and breathes music. Since the age of seven, the Ohio native learned to play piano by ear and continued his passion to pursue music all the way through Juilliard and Long Island University C.W. Post. Throughout his academic career, Jasper formed The Jazzman Trio with family friends Ernie and Marvin Isley, and later joined The Isley Brothers, which at the time included Rudolph, Ronald and O'Kelly.

With a background in music composition, Jasper was partly responsible for constructing many of The Isley Brothers' hits including "For The Love Of You" and "At Your Best." Frank Ocean recently covered the latter song, bringing back nostalgic feelings of when the late Aaliyah covered the 1976 hit on her debut 18 years later.

Here, Jasper recalls how the original melody came to be.

VIBE: How did you become a part of the Isley Brothers?
Chris Jasper: Our families knew each other all of my life. We were from the same neighborhood in Cincinnati. When my sister married Rudolph Isley, one of the older brothers, the families got even closer. It was a lifetime relationship. Musically, what happened was the three of us younger guys [Marvin and Ernie Isley] when I was in junior high school and high school, we formed our own little trio called The Jazzman Trio and we would play in local areas in New Jersey, schools, even bowling alleys. Wherever we could play and the older brothers would come and see us play and they liked what they saw. At one point they wanted us to start recording with them and that was right before or right after we formed a trio. It was shortly after that because they really liked what we were doing. They took us down to a studio and recorded one of our sessions. Shortly after that we started to record and tour with them. It was a progression of things. We eventually formed into one band.

You guys recorded Harvest for the World, which was a big success on the charts. What was the process behind that album?
It was an album that we wanted to get messages out in. "Harvest for the World" was the lead single from there. "People of Today" was another song on there that had a message to it. I remember when we recorded "Harvest for the World," I felt that it needed to have a setup, something to setup that song. I remember saying, give me a few minutes I’m going to try to come up with something in the studio and the prelude to that song I came up with right in the studio. It took me about a half hour, but I went back to some of my compositional skills. I took chord progressions from some of the songs and combined them, then came up with a different melody and constructed the lyrics from the songs, recorded it right there in the studio. It was conceived right there in the studio. I think that was the only idea that was conceived in the studio and recorded right after it was conceived [laughs]. It was definitely a message album in a way because of those two songs.

Also on that album, “At You Best” was recorded. What was the inspiration behind that song? I read that it was dedicated to the Isley Brothers’ mother?
After we did the song and after we recorded it, I think Marvin did a dedication to her. I think we just wanted to do a ballad. It started with Ernie. We wanted to do a nice ballad, a love song. That’s what we were thinking about with that song. As we worked on it, it developed more and more and it got better and better. I did a lot of keyboard work on it, which is the sound of the song basically. We wanted to do a good love song because we were known at that point, and I think that was ’76, we were known for doing R&B ballads. “For The Love Of You” was on the previous album and “Let Me Down Easy” was another one on that album. That was a strong ballad too from that album. We wanted to continue that, writing good ballads, and it turned into what it turned into. It got a lot of play, people went back and found it and said, ‘hey, this is a good song, let’s do another version of it.’ Aaliyah did a good job with that, too.

What was the studio session like for "At Your Best?"
I did a whole lot of the instrumentation. Once I knew the chord progression and I knew where it was going as far as that was concerned, we would start laying down those tracks. Basically we would start with, if Ernie played with the drums, we would start with the drums and whatever my main keyboard was going to be, and lay those two tracks down first and it opened up other things. Sometimes Marvin would play along with us and the three of us would lay down three tracks first and then if we need to add a guitar later we would add that. Or if we needed to add keyboards, we would add those. It was recorded in stages. That’s how we approached it because we were the only three musicians.

When you constructed “At Your Best,” what type of feeling did you guys set out to convey? In my opinion, it was very a soulful and touching song. What type of emotion did you hope the song would translate to the listener?
It was a song that was a very personal song lyrically. We wanted it to be a song like if a person wanted to express how they felt about another person, and in this case a man and a woman, you could just put on that song and it would speak for him. That’s how I saw it personally. I saw it like if you really want to say something to a woman, you really care about her, just put this song on and it’ll tell her how you feel. I guess that worked because a lot of people said that they like the lyrics to that song.

When you heard Aaliyah’s version what were your thoughts? She began singing the opening lyrics a capella and then the instrumental comes in right after. What was running through your head when you first heard it?
It was great. Every time I hear someone do a cover of anything that I worked on I’m very pleased because that means they thought it was important enough to record it. There’s thousands of songs that people can choose from to do covers of and if they single out something that I had my hand in I’m amazed. I’m like, ‘That’s fantastic,’ especially if they do a good version, which I felt her version was very, very good. I was happy to hear it. It’s like when Whitney Houston did “For The Love Of You.” That was another time I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ She did a great job with that one, too. I’m always very pleased when I hear that.

“At Your Best” also wasn’t a single for you guys. Why do you think people gravitated towards that melody? It became a radio hit but it wasn’t an official single off of that album.
That was common as far as our albums were concerned. People wouldn’t just listen to the singles. I remember when we used to put out a single, the request from a lot of the retailers were, ‘Well, okay, where’s the album? When is the album going to come out?’ Because people liked our albums. There was usually some funk on there, some ballads on there, there was a mixture. There were songs that had a guitar solo on it. There was a mixture of things in there that people could go to. What happened at radio, too, was that they wouldn’t only play the single, they would play things from the album. A song like “Sensuality” was not a single, but it got a lot of play from the previous album The Heat Is On. People would go into albums and play the other records.

“At Your Best” was one that they did that with, too. They went into the album and it got a lot of airplay. If people were following the Isley Brothers, they still knew that song, even though it wasn’t a single and we would do it in concerts sometimes and people recognized it when it came on. They would recognize album cuts, as well as the singles. “For The Love Of You” was another one. That’s one of the favorite songs that we play in concert, but it wasn’t the lead single from the album. “Fight The Power” was. What I’m saying is they would go in depth and get songs out of the album. Earth, Wind and Fire were the same way. They would go into their albums. The Commodores, they would go into their albums and play stuff from their albums. Stevie Wonder was the same way. I think that’s why people could pick it out and recognize it pretty quickly and say, ‘We like this, We want to do a cover,’ because it did receive a lot of attention.

You said the lyrics came from a personal place. Do you think the magic within that song lies within the lyrics more than the actual instrumental?
A song is, to me, especially a ballad, is poetry set to music. It’s basically what it is. The music sets up everything with songs and I feel the music is the first thing that a person is going to, unless it’s an a capella piece. But the music is the first thing that’s going to grab the attention of the listener. The setting has to be right for those lyrics because if you put a good lyric with the wrong setting, it won’t be as affective. People won’t feel it the same way. If you put those “At Your Best” lyrics in a setting of heavy metal music, it’s not going to affect the listener the same way. That music was the first consideration, how it sounded. When that thing comes on, what is it going to sound like? I added a lot of layers and keyboards on it to make it sound really beautiful and lush so that when the lyrics come out, it has the proper effect when you start hearing the lyrics, because usually at first listening nobody really hears all of the lyrics and remembers all of the lyrics once they hear a song. But what they will do, they will remember the feeling they had when they heard it and they might remember some of the hook like the chords or whatever the main thing is, they might remember that. But they may not remember all of the verses at first listening. You have to hear it several times before you get into the verses and what it’s saying. That’s kind of the consideration when writing a song. That came from a lot of experience, what does a person take in first when they hear a song? What is the first thing that they feel? Generally, it’s the music and that main theme you keep repeating in the song. Generally, that’s what they take away first. Then they get into the verses.

Frank Ocean, who’s big on songwriting, covered “At Your Best” on his Endless album recently. Did you have a chance to hear it?
I like that, too. I heard his version. Not as much as Aaliyah’s, but I did like his version. I think Aaliyah’s was closer to the original. At the top of my head, I’m more familiar with Aaliyah’s because I heard it more, but I think that was the first impression I got. Aaliyah's was more like the original. I did appreciate that it was more like the original. Sometimes I feel that if you’re going to do a cover, either it’s going to be like the original, similar in some way, or you’re going to do something that makes it different. When we did songs like “Hello It’s Me” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” those were covers. What the decision was, and again I’m the composition guy, the chord structure and everything, I changed the chord structure of those songs and made them different. Those were songs that people recognized for us now because they were like different almost. I did some covers on my upcoming album, too, and made them my own. That’s two ways of approaching covers. I tend to like the latter. I like to make them my own. I like to put my old footprint on it. That’s the difference I saw with Ocean and Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s was more like the original.

How do you feel about people recognizing “At Your Best” as Aaliyah’s own? When I first heard that song, I thought it was her original melody, I didn’t know it was a cover. What do you think about people who do take it a step further to read the credits and ultimately come back to the Isley Brothers to see that’s you guys’ original song?
I can understand that, a person being younger and just hearing the record for the first time, maybe they didn’t hear the original. A lot of people think the song Whitney Houston she did in The Bodyguard was the first version. Dolly Parton wrote it and there was another version. I’m sure she doesn’t mind [laughs], but it’s just what happens with generations, when something is recorded to another audience. That’s understandable. I still appreciate that she even did it.

I agree, it is generational. Even now with Frank Ocean covering it, who I think has an even younger fan base, it opens them up to a wider range of music. Even when I looked up the original song on YouTube, I read the comments and a few of them said that Frank Ocean brought them there. Now they’re introduced to the Isley Brothers if they didn’t know before. What do you think is the recipe behind making that timeless music that can still in 2016 standout as it did back in the 70s or 80s?
Music I feel that is timeless I can equate it to something else in another field. If you make a really nice car like a Rolls Royce and you keep it well, it’s going to look good no matter what era you see it in. When that car drives down the street, somebody is going to recognize it and say, ‘That’s a great looking car.’ They don’t care about the year. The craftsmanship is well done, you go inside it’s a beautiful interior, it doesn’t matter what year it is. Music is the same way, art is the same way. If you do something well, it doesn’t matter what period of time it’s played in. That’s proven by the classics. Beethoven sounds just as good now as he did when it was recorded. People are still performing that music. It’s because it’s a certain quality. Quality never goes out of style. If you do something well, it doesn’t matter what era it’s in. That’s where that term timeless came from. It’s well constructed. I have to say that I was a huge part of constructing that music because of my background. I’m the composer in the group and I made sure that the songs made musical sense, from the chord progression to the melody and everything flowed right. That’s true with a lot of the Motown music. It sounds just as good now as it did then. They had the same thing. They had arrangers and songwriters who put that stuff together and crafted it well and it stands the test of time.

R. Kelly also remixed “At Your Best” on that same album. He gave it more of a hip-hop and R&B fusion, which was the main sound of Aaliyah's album. What did you think when they took it a step further in terms of completely changing up its sound from its original ballad format?
To me that just shows that the song has versatility. If somebody can do something else with it and it works out and it sounds good and people appreciate it, it just shows that there’s other possibilities that maybe I didn’t think of from the beginning, but if someone else can think of something else that works, that’s fine with me. That’s part of the business of music and even art. You can have different interpretations of things. I think that’s one of the beautiful things of music. I did a version on my last album of “You Are So Beautiful” and it’s a different interpretation but in its own way it’s still very powerful. That’s the beauty of music, that another person can hear something a different way and still be effective with it. I like that.

Even Drake sampled Aaliyah’s vocals in the beginning of his “Unforgettable” song, so I do agree that people interpret music or art to fit their own mold.
Sometimes what works vocally for one artist may not work for another one. That new artist will sometimes have to develop a new way to approach the song that fits them. That’s the beautiful thing about music.

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Nick Rice

The 40 Best R&B Songs Of 2019

If you're a true lover of R&B, you can appreciate a soulfully soothing, quiet storm-worthy, put-it-on-repeat-and-think-about-your-boo (or potential boo) type of song. If you're a true lover of the genre, you sometimes find yourself reminiscing about the days when R&B of the '90s and 2000s was sensually laced with emotional vocal runs and the music videos featured not only a scene in the rain but also a phone, 2-way pager or some kind of communication device. And if you're a true lover of R&B, you've followed (and hopefully accepted) how the genre has evolved and survived since then.

2018 was definitely the year where R&B declared its status as "alive and well," in a time where hip-hop made its dominating and profitable presence known. This year, R&B continued to hold its own and kept the smooth, soul-stirring vibes coming even if it didn't hold its traditional form.  As hip-hop and the genre continued to birth chart-climbing singles, R&B songs of the early aughts made a resurgence through sample-laden tracks from artists of the new school.

For VIBE's 2019 Best R&B Songs list, we decided to not only choose songs that deserve a spot on a baby-making playlist but also celebrate the artists who've kept the core of R&B intact in their own way. Some songs are well-known, some are deep cuts. Some of these artists have won a music award or two this year, but the others are just as worthy. Here we've compiled an alphabetical list of songs that have resonated with the R&B lover in us. Get into it.

 

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Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Singles By Bomb Womxn Of 2019

Nothing hits like a rapper talking their sh*t, especially if she happens to be a womxn. There's a confidence that oozes out from the speakers and into the spirits of a listener open to that addictive feminine energy. This year, we got to see this in a big way thanks to the crossover success of a batch of very different womxn in rap. There's the hot girl also known as Megan Thee Stallion who balances her college courses while grabbing up Billboard chart-topping hits; new mama Cardi B proves you can really have it all and make history at the same time (a la her solo rap Grammy win) and Lizzo, who constantly pushes what it means to be a "rapper" with her style of vibrant pop music.

In 2018, VIBE presented a year-end list dedicated to albums by womxn and this year continues that tradition of spotlighting some of our favorite womxn– who happen to rap. The term "female rapper" has become sour by the minute, with many artists in the game refusing to pair their gender to an artform seemingly jumpstarted by a black womxn. “I don’t want to even be a female rapper,” CHIKA told Teen Vogue recently. “I’m a rapper. So for someone to have a qualifier like that and throw it out there so publicly — it feels really backhanded. I don’t like [it].” She isn't the only one. As hip-hop continues to dominate pop culture, the womxn in the genre are demanding respect for the craft. Here's a list comprised of some of our favorite songs that hit the charts or slipped under the radar.

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Steve Morris @stevemorrism

Afrochella Sets Sight On Connecting The African Diaspora, One Festival At A Time

African music and culture are going global.

There’s a concerted effort to create and connect on the continent and to the continent. In Ghana and Nigeria specifically, a number of events, festivals, concerts, and activations have grown to prominence over the past five years, attracting newcomers and serving locals. This year, December will harvest a crop of opportunities for those abroad and at home to tap into the music, art, food, and fashion of the new-wave vanguard.

“Ghana remains home to the global African family,” Ghana Tourism Authority CEO Akwasi Agyemang said in an interview earlier this year. "We are positioning Ghana as a gateway to the West African market," Agyemang added. As African cultural productions popularize abroad, Accra and Lagos have become the go-to grounds for people of the diaspora to initiate immersion into experiencing Africa. 

The Ghana Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture have lined up a slate of activities in an effort to boost the country’s tourism industry. The government has taken initiative to further pushing for mobilization, galvanizing both descendants and diasporans to visit, invest, and live in the country.

Certain factors make Ghana appealing for visitors. Along with it being one of the more stable nations in West Africa, according to a 2011 Forbes report, Ghana was ranked the 11th -most friendly country in the world, ranked higher than any other African country. But as of last year, according to the World Atlas, Ghana didn’t rank amongst the top 10 African countries to visit for tourism in 2018. There is already a history of diasporans permanently relocating to Ghana. The government attempted to facilitate this process when it waived some visa requirements and passed amendments to a 2002 law that permits people of African origin to apply to stay indefinitely in Ghana. 

But this year has been a particularly important one for visitors. This December marks the ending commemoration of the Year of Return. Ghana 2019 is an initiative of the government formally launched by the President of the Republic of Ghana in September 2019 in Washington, D.C. as a program for Africans in the diaspora to unite with Africans on the continent. The mission transcends a marketing strategy. The year 2019 commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. The program serves to recognize the surging people and the following generations of achievements, sacrifices since then. 

The past year has seen a steady influx to West Africa. According to a report in Quartz Africa, Ghana’s tourism sector contributed 5.5 percent to GDP in 2018, ranking in fourth place after gold, cocoa, and oil in terms of foreign exchange generation for the country. And the government is hoping for more growth. Ghana is reportedly projected to rake in an annual $8.3 billion from the tourism sector by the year 2027 in tandem with an estimated 4.3 million international tourist arrivals.

But with the opportunities for connection and investment comes a slate of new concerns attached to old ones. Tourism, for example, can be lucrative for local business, but also can have a broader disruptive impact on the nation’s economy. Then, there are the issues that programmers face to bring locals and visitors the sought-after idealized experiences of Ghana— a taxing and a challenging feat to execute in an environment that’s still developing its infrastructure in multiple sectors. Along with improper documentation of visitors, the 15-year development plan put in place to help push the numbers, in ways, has not been implemented in full force.

But a rush to Ghana is still projected, and there’s a slew of events coinciding in the region at the same time this year aiming to accommodate this. One of the events slated for a return is Afrochella, the annual art, music, and food festival happening in Accra from December 20 to January 5. Separate from the official year of return events, each event also aims to fulfill a similar mission and market individual appeal amidst similar events. There’s AfroNation, the popular Europe music festival holding its first-ever edition on Ghana’s coastline at the same time as Afrochella, while Nativeland is planning a selection of panels and immersive activations with Melanin Unscripted focusing on music, art, and culture in Lagos right before it.

Afrochella was conceptualized by Abdul Karim Abdullah in 2015. Abdullah, along with co-founder Kenny Agyapong, and COO Edward Adjaye, launched the full-scope festival with the hopes of curating a connection to the continent this year, focused on increasing visibility to the rising talent on the continent. Their 2019 theme is “Diaspora Calling,” aiming to promote networking within the Ghanaian community and diaspora, ensure African youth value and celebrate their native cultures while connecting communities through education, fashion, art, music, and business in Africa. 

Community involvement representative Emmanual Ansa states they want the event to become “the impetus and mecca for the celebration of African music, culture, and art.” But amidst the many options on the ground this year to fulfill these missions, where does Afrochella stand, and how does it stand out?

VIBE sat down with the Afrochella co-founder Abdullah to talk about the structural challenges of executing this initiative while appeasing the demands of a growing consumer base, the cultural significance of the event, and envisioning Ghana as a premier frontier for a global black connection.

Can you talk about the origin of Afrochella? What inspired it?

I went to school in Ghana for about seven years, and then I came back to the US and I went to high school in the Bronx—  High School For Teaching And The Professions. I went to Syracuse University in 2006 and got my bachelor's in psychology and biology. And then I got my master's in 2016 at CUNY Hunter college in public health. I've been working in medical research for eight and a half years. But this has been a passion of mine that I've always done on the side, which is throwing African-inspired events.

That’s when my team came together. It started out with me wanting to do a festival here in New York called Native Tongue festival, and that was geared towards food. I just wanted to explain the culture and engage people within the diaspora. But then, on our yearly trip to Ghana, I found that we would gather and we would have a great time, but we couldn't really have that much of an effect once we left. I felt like we could have an effect; we could encourage more people to reach back home and do certain things by creating a space where we can engage each other. I thought there was so much talent coming in from all over the world that were from Ghanian descent or African descent and if we could create a place where we can galvanize all of that and the people that are doing amazing things within those industries, we would be able to create something pretty good. [In] 2017, we decided to do something like that.

How has it changed since 2017? Has it been easier to translate what you're trying to do in terms of this new interest in Africa — Ghana and Nigeria in particular? 

My team is battle-tested. We understand what we have to do in order to make the event successful. But, I wouldn't say it's been easier; each year presented different challenges for us. In year one, it was financial. Until this year, it was navigating bureaucracies. Last year, it was navigating governmental agencies. This year is navigating competition, navigating finding more funding.  One of the things that we noticed about events in Ghana specifically is that once it [nears] completion, people tend to not attend it anymore. What we want to make sure we do is every year we want to increase the amount of people that attend— and each year we have at least by 30 percent. Each year, we've been able to define our message more clearly. 

Talk a little bit about the government in Ghana. How has it been dealing with things on the bureaucracy level?

I would say our event is doing a big service to Ghana. Afrochella has definitely given people an opportunity to visit Ghana. The government should support us in a way that makes gaining access to certain government facilities easier. But that has not been the case. We've had to be very proactive about that with regards to certain policies that may exist that are not written on an online forum. Like in America, if I wanted to do a special event in the park, I'd be able to go to an online source. I'd be able to see all the things that need to do in order to get a specific permit for a specific venue. In Ghana, these things don't exist.

For instance, this year we received an email from some agency. Out of all of the years, we've never communicated with them and in the third year, they're reaching out to us about musician copyrights and, apparently, we have to pay a tax. Those are the kinds of things that we've faced. You can end up paying people that are not actually supposed to get paid. And there's no way of you knowing whether or not it exists or doesn't exist. 

Last year, we had a very weird incident four days before the festival. We were told by the Ministry of Aviation that our stadium is right by the takeoff of the planes leaving Accra. I would think that the venue that we're renting out for this festival would be able to let us know, “hey, you need to do this with the Ministry of Aviation,”— they did not. The day before Christmas, we got a notification that we have to change venues because they feel our lights will interfere with flights taking off. It's, of course, an accident. So, we reached out to the Ministry of Aviation, sat down with the director and devised a plan in order to allow our event to continue. Those are the kinds of things we faced as an event that we are still trying to navigate. Hopefully, as we grow, it will get easier.

Do you think it'll get easier when some type of infrastructure is built to help those types of events move more smoothly?

I think that Ghana is going to have to look itself in the mirror. We all don't know what to expect in December. Because there are a lot of people going to Ghana in December, the anticipation is very high. All the major hotels in Accra are sold out. How Accra responds to the influx of people I think should inform the government on how they should prepare for events and things like this for the future. I do hope that there is an effort created to streamline policies. 

I would like for the government to encourage events. I think events is one of the major drivers of tourism. And if they're paying attention, they will notice that a lot of people are coming to Accra for Afrochella and the events that exist during that last week of Christmas. The double mission is to take a deeper look at this creative industry and figure out a way to encourage that positively in a way that it affects both the people on the ground and the people within the diaspora. 

The government has not been welcoming this with open arms or does it not have any type of structured initiative to help this run smoothly?

I'm not saying that. I just feel like in general, we do not know what changes in infrastructure or policy being made to accommodate the amount of people that are coming in. For instance, with Afrochella we understand that because there's going to be so many people—there was an excessive amount of traffic coming into the stadium last year—that we need to figure out a way to get people to the festival in shuttles. If we can get people that are shuttles, then we could reduce the amount of cars. We reached out to the Ministry of Roads to help us so we can avoid traffic in front of the stadium and that we can make sure that there's a safe way for people to enter. This is some of the planning that we have done. Until now, I personally have not seen any information come out, access [to] policies that exist. 

One of the major complaints that people from the diaspora face when they go to Africa during Christmas time is we feel that we should be having the same sort of customer service that we enjoy abroad. With the influx of people, I think that it's going to get worse.

We just wanna make sure that infrastructure exists to make sure that people that are coming do not disrupt the way of life in Accra.

There are a lot of other events happening around the same time as Afrochella. What is the concerted effort to kind of stand out from the rest?

Our goal is to highlight the thriving millennial talent from within the continent. So we take pride in making sure that we're highlighting people within various industries of food, fashion, music. With our Afrochella Talk series, we’ve been able to highlight people that have been doing amazing things within the creative industry. In December, we'll be doing one on music. And this is an opportunity to be able to educate people on opportunities that may exist within their field or create a platform for people to be able to discuss questions they may have. 

We're also involved heavily in charity. Last year, we supported Water Aid to help provide clean water to families in need. The year before that, we gave out school supplies to kids within Madina Zongo. This year, we're doing charity twofold. We're rebuilding an orphanage school, in Jamestown, Accra and also providing them with school supplies. We call this initiative Afrochella Reads]. We’re also doing Afrochella Feeds on December 26th. 

Our goal when we bring people to Ghana is not just to come and turn up, not just to have a good time, but also to give them a feel of the vibration of the country, what the culture is.For us, it's a holistic approach.

What does the full festival entail?

The festival itself is art, music, food, fashion and all of that culminates in our eyes what culture is. We believe that each part of these is equally as important. Not one part is more important than the other and that we should celebrate them together. In addition to people getting to go to our festival, we also give them the opportunity to be able to engage with the country through our tours, through our charity. The tours and the charity that we do is to make people understand that yes, Africa is a good time— you can go to all the clubs— but we want to make sure you leave and provide an impact at the same time. 

Talk a little bit about the Audiomack rising star challenge and that effort to kind of curate the connection with music and culture.

With the rise of afropop music in America, I feel these artists deserve a chance. Right now, the popular, mainstream artists are the ones that are getting the looks they deserve. But I think that there are a lot of talents that exist from the continent that deserve to showcase their talent.

The other aspect of it is, I feel that people in the continent are using all of these apps and all of these different services and they hardly get to connect with representatives from those services. One of our goals is to make sure that we partner with these companies and give them the opportunity to invest in the talent directly. With Audiomack, we're doing exactly that in that we're giving seven individuals an opportunity to perform at Afrochella. And the one with the most streams, we’re giving them $1,000 towards their career and we’re giving them an opportunity to for a studio session at our partners BBnZ Live. This is one model of the type of partnerships we want to, we look to create with companies in the future. 

Why is this year in particular so important for the reconnection of the diaspora in the context of the 400-year anniversary?

A lot of the conversation between the diaspora and the people from the continent is what makes us different, why we don't get along. What we want to do as a festival is take that conversation and change it into what can we learn from each other and how can we help each other. I think that it's very important that as you see the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans and everyone reaching for Africa, that we engage the people in the diaspora to make them understand that there are opportunities that exist and there is amazing talent in Africa and they are interested in starting a business and you're interested in developing a space and you can engage with your counterparts on the continent and help build the continent yourself.

I think the more black people we get to invest in the continent, as a whole black will be helping each other. This year is absolutely important and I think that shoutout should go to Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana for declaring this year The Year of Return. Ghana is definitely a good site that people can visit, but we hope that as people enjoy themselves and have that experience that they use that as a platform to visit other African countries and see what opportunities are there for them to be able to leave a lasting impact on the continent.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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