Album: Sunset Park Soundtrack (1996)
Aaliyah's debut album was a smash success, but the teen star's career seemed to be in a state of uncertainty in 1995, following the salacious revelation that she had married her mentor R. Kelly. The collaborations with Kells suddenly sounded creepy, and the momentum that Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number had built up screeched to a halt in the face of the controversy. Clearly, she would need to abandon her Svengali on her sophomore album, but how? No one had ever heard an Aaliyah song that R. Kelly didn't produce.
The first sign that Aaliyah would survive the scandal was "Are You Ready," her contribution to the Sunset Park soundtrack that was released in April 1996. Produced by Naughty By Nature's Kay Gee and written by Renne Neuville from Zhané, it's a low-key summertime party groove that lays a wistful jazz fusion guitar sample over head-nodding hip-hop drums. On the hook, she taunts all the critics who counted her out: "You know I'm comin' back—tell me if you're ready." The song was a minor radio hit for Aaliyah, but more importantly, it showed that she had a distinctive sound and an identity that was bigger than any one producer. —Brendan Frederick