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The 10 Best Aaliyah Songs That Weren’t Radio Hits

Aaliyah white headband sunglasses

Throughout Aaliyah’s career, the Detroit singer teamed up with Static Major, Timbaland, Missy Elliott and more to create tracks that tested musical boundaries and dismantled the confines of genre. Photo Credit: Sal Idriss/Redferns

To celebrate Aaliyah’s return to streaming, we take a look at some of Baby Girl’s most underrated gems. Here are the best Aaliyah songs that weren’t radio hits.

The complete discography of the late R&B star Aaliyah will finally be available to the public on streaming services. Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle and former head Blackground, has agreed to a deal with EMPIRE that will make all of Aaliyah’s music available on streaming for the first time. Over the next two months, the albums will roll out slowly: first One in a Million on August 20th; then the Romeo Must Die Soundtrack on September 30th; Aaliyah’s self-titled album on September 10th; and I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah on October 8th. (The albums will also be releasing on vinyl and CD.)

A very limited selection of Aaliyah music has been available during the streaming era, including the singer’s R. Kelly-produced debut effort, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, as well as a number of EPs — including Back & Forth and (At Your Best) You Are Love.

For years, Aaliyah’s music has been unavailable on streaming due to the strong grip Hankerson has had on the catalogue. And there still seems to be some conflict. The day before Hankerson announced the deal, the Aaliyah estate released a statement denouncing the news. 

“For 20 years we have battled behind the scenes, enduring shadowy tactics of deception,” the estate’s statement reads, “now, this unscrupulous endeavor to release Aaliyah’s music without transparency or full accounting to the estate compels our hearts to express a word – forgiveness,” but pledges to “continue to defend ourselves and her legacy lawfully.”

Throughout her career, the Detroit singer teamed up with Static Major, Timbaland, Missy Elliott and more to create tracks that tested musical boundaries and dismantled the confines of genre, such as her hits “Try Again,” “Are You That Somebody?” and “Rock The Boat.” As with most artists, a plethora of songs in her collection weren’t as well-known to the mainstream. However, they showcased her ability to hopscotch between different production elements, vocal cadences and flows, and overall sonic sensations. 

Before her albums hit your favorite streaming service, take a listen to some of the most underrated songs — not ranked! — from the superstar who still had so much to offer.

10. “Man Undercover” (Timbaland and Magoo’s Welcome To Our World, 1997)

Although this song was featured on the dynamic Virginia duo’s debut project, Aaliyah’s pleasantly-smooth riffs — plus a vocal assist from Missy Elliott — prove that the ladies undeniably ran shit here. “Man Undercover” has production akin to the 1998 Baby Girl bop “Are You That Somebody?” — even down to the Timbo ad-libs — bringing flavor to a track that was ultimately ahead of its time, and solidifying the sweet swagger of the squad’s ingenue.

 

9. “Extra Smooth” (Aaliyah, 2001)

The Eric Seats and Rapture Stewart-produced “Extra Smooth” is the right combination of R&B flair and hip-hop grit that would become the hallmarks of Aaliyah’s sound, and the content showcases her feelings on certain men looking to be her one and only. As the lyrics show, the songstress has no problem letting a man know that he needs to come correct. “Am I supposed to talk to you, be your boo?” she jokes before affirming, “Don’t come tryna be extra smooth.”

 

8. “No Days Go By” (One in a Million, 1996)

The lighthearted “No Days Go By,” which was a One in a Million bonus track only available in Japan, perfectly encapsulates the easy, breezy and beautiful vibes Aaliyah was known for. Aaliyah sings to her lover, who she’s positively smitten with, throughout the nearly five-minute song. While much of the One in a Million LP discusses the difficulties of relationships, the hidden gem on her sophomore effort is the one that sounds and feels like a breath of fresh air.

7. “Read Between The Lines” (Aaliyah, 2001)

The OG version of “Hot Like Fire” let Aaliyah’s sensual vocals take the wheel, and allowed her to toy with sexuality without toeing the line. The result? One of the more consensual R&B joints of the lust-filled late ’90s. The sizzling track whets the listener’s appetite for more musical goodness, which they eventually received by way of Timbaland’s popular, hip-hop heavy remix. However, due to the heat emitted from the newer version, the glory of the studio edition fell by the wayside.

6. “Hot Like Fire” (One in a Million, 1996)

The OG version of “Hot Like Fire” let Aaliyah’s sensual vocals take the wheel, and allowed her to toy with sexuality without toeing the line. The result? One of the more consensual R&B joints of the lust-filled late ’90s. The sizzling track whets the listener’s appetite for more musical goodness, which they eventually received by way of Timbaland’s popular, hip-hop heavy remix. However, due to the heat emitted from the newer version, the glory of the studio edition fell by the wayside.

5. “You Won’t See Me Tonight” (Nas’ I Am…, 1999)

The 1999 Nas’ song features a slowed down sample of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Hang On,” which the Queens emcee and the New York-born singer rode with ease, resulting in a timeless tune. At the tail-end of the Timbaland-produced joint (the only time the 90s staples appeared on a song together), Nas refers to Aaliyah as “The Queen,” a title and sentiment that echoes even louder 20 years later, given her influence in the years after her death.

 

 4. “Don’t Know What To Tell Ya” (I Care 4 U, 2002)

Consider this Aaliyah’s version of “sorry to this man.” On wax, she’s shrugging off an insecure flame with trust issues due to his previous relationship trauma. An infectious bass and an Arabic-influenced sample runs through the track as she runs through the reasons why she won’t be “incarcerated” by her uptight beau. “Don’t compare me to your last one,” she chastises. “I can’t help it she was a fast one.” 

 

3. “A Girl Like You” (One in a Million, 1996)

With a knockout verse from the rapper Treach of Naughty By Nature, “Girl Like You” is sprinkled with summertime seasoning thanks to an appropriate sample by way of Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness.” Missy Elliott and Zhane reportedly laid down some of the oohs and ahhs in the background, which accompanied Aaliyah’s dreamy vocals and the positively East Coast-style boom-bat beat.

2. “Back In One Piece” feat. DMX (Romeo Must Die Soundtrack, 2000)

The song is billed as a rap/sung collabo, and Aaliyah takes a gracious backseat to DMX’s gravelly-voiced verses. However, her angelic coos and vocal gymnastics skills eventually get a chance to go for the gold. The track, featured on the soundtrack for her first Hollywood film, Romeo Must Die, brings Aaliyah’s eternally calm and cool attributes were brought center stage, proving she was a force to be reckoned with in booth and on the big screen.

1. “Loose Rap” (Aaliyah, 2001)

With pen work and a feature from the late Static Major, the duo subtly shades those who bring nothing remarkable to the table with their lazy pick-up lines (“Too many times you guys will come and step to me, I guess you call yourselves booking me, now do I look easy?” she sings). Even though both musicians have passed on, the song from Aaliyah’s self-titled final effort still feels refreshing and current, rendering both legacies everlastingly palpable.

This story was updated on August 5th, 2021. 

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J’na Jefferson is a New York-based music and culture journalist whose work has been seen on Billboard, BBC Music, The Recording Academy and more.

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