100 Best Songs of the ’90s (#50-41)

These are the best songs of the 1990s.

48: Aaliyah – Are You That Somebody? (1998)

If you ever doubt that great music can be found in unexpected places, then look no further than Aaliyah’s 1998 hit “Are You That Somebody?,” which was released on the soundtrack of Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle. Released in the middle of the singer’s tragically short career, “Are You That Somebody?” was co-written by frequent Aaliyah collaborator Static Major and super-producer Timbaland.

“Are You That Somebody?” is the ultimate showcase for Aaliyah’s vocal skills. Where some singers are memorable for sheer bombast, Aaliyah’s talent was more subtle but also showed a musician in command of her instrument. Her crisp diction is particularly notable given the silky tones of her voice. She manages to sound pristine and seductive all at once, and this, coupled with Timbaland’s trademark production of nearly-rapped, swiftly delivered phrases punctuated with long, anticipation-bating silences gives “Are You That Somebody?” the sexy urgency that propels it forward.

Beyond its quality, “Are You That Somebody?” is also significant because of what an influential song it was. It is a song that had an effect on a great number of artists, from those as famous as Adele and Beyoncé to innumerable underground R&B singers, who have elevated Aaliyah to legendary status within their circle. Adam Levine has stated that the song led him to pursuing a more soulful brand of singing, whereas the rapper Drake and Lil’ Wayne played even more demonstrable homage by referencing the song in their own work. Dance music listeners will have heard Gotye mix the song with his “Somebody That I Used to Know.”

The lyrics of “Are You That Somebody?” are flirtatious and hopeful, but listening to it is a melancholy experience considering the singer’s death came less than three years later (adding to the sadness, Static Major also passed away at an unexpectedly young age). It is always hard to fans to lose artists they love, but Aaliyah’s voice and its feathery dexterity feels so ethereal that listening to her posthumously is especially emotional. “Are You That Somebody?” represents the artist at the peak of her powers, but it is impossible to consider that without wondering about how much more she could have done. – Mike McClelland

47: Digable Planets- Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That) (1992)

You would have to be doing something pretty odd to be called “alternative rap” in 1992. Digable Planets seemed to simply ignore the current direction of hip-hop music as though they dropped out of a different time. We hadn’t yet seen the bottom of hip-hop’s descent into gang violence, sexism and expression of our many racist and social ills. However, it was encouraging to see an attempt at breaking the mold and making hip-hop for the sheer enjoyment or celebration of a culture which had been oppressed for far too long. While the genre does and should always give a nod to its origins, the rise of “jazz hip-hop” paid homage to its musical roots rather than reminding us of the worst parts of our shared history. A Tribe Called Quest was arguably the first, but we can’t forget the innovations of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and of course, Digable Planets.

Only one Digable Planets track ever made it to the Billboard charts but it was enough to earn the group recognition and frequent play right up to today. “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” has a fat, descending baseline that can melt the ice cream right off your cone. It just keeps walking cyclically down a spiral staircase of groove. A subtle jazz loop breakbeat slides up to the bar and quietly orders a spirit while rappers Butterfly, Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca discuss their own style in chilled out rhymes with lines that simply lay back in the dark, light up a smoke and nod along. “We be to rap like key be to lock.

As if that isn’t enough, a simplistic horn loop announces the arrival of a new sound which would become influential across the scene. “Rebirth of Slick” showed that rap could be something else, celebrate and innovate rather than simply denigrate others. The group’s sophomore effort, Blowout Comb, had all kinds of these sorts of gems and it’s regrettable that tracks like “Where I’m From” never reached the same level of notoriety. But “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” woke us up to new possibilities. For those who appreciate what Digable Planets were doing, this was no one-hit wonder, it was a statement about the love of hip-hop music for what it is — and that’s it. – Darryl G. Wright

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