When Frank Ocean released his version of The Isley Brothers‘ Quiet Storm classic “At Your Best (You Are Love)” last week, it was both a flower left at a grave and an investment in the future. Posted on the boundary-blending singer-songwriter’s Tumblr the day after what would have been Aaliyah‘s 36th birthday, the new track was widely received as a tribute to the late singer, whose death at 22 in a plane crash halted one of the most promising careers in ’90s pop. Aaliyah included the song on her 1994 debut album Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number, and it was her first ballad to break through on the charts. A comparison of Ocean’s interpretation to his heroine’s, and to the original 1976 version by the Isley Brothers, points toward something more: the way in which Ocean is reimagining R&B by responding to its legacies in his own coolly audacious way.
Ocean’s take begins with a heartbeat rhythm, just a couple of pulses on a keyboard. Then his falsetto takes over. It’s viscous and commanding, fulfilling that register’s irresistibly persuasive potential. “An artfully cultivated falsetto, crooned by an Al Green or a Bee Gee, has become a vocalized foreplay,” the critic Anthony Heilbut once wrote; Ocean is well aware he’s unbuttoning every shirt within his reach. The echo he applies surrounds his loving words like a wet cloud.
Compare even the first notes of Ocean’s version (renamed “You Are Luhh” for the Internet age) to Aaliyah’s; a story emerges that’s more complex than a come-on. “At Your Best (You Are Love)” is the only song on Aaliyah’s debut not penned by her then-paramour R. Kelly, an Isley Brothers acolyte who enlisted his muse to pay tribute in an arrangement very close to the original. A remix later made the song a hit by adding a typical ’90s beat and various murmured interjections from Kelly. The album version, though, shows Aaliyah very gently pulling the song away from the much older man then dominating her life. It begins a capella, showcasing the singer’s trademark flute-like head voice. As the arrangement unfolds, satin, around her, she takes in each phrase and makes the listener consider it, moving slowly and deliberately, as if she’s explaining something. The vocal is not sexy. It’s reassuring, like an embrace from a dear friend or even a family member.
In fact, “At Your Best (You Are Love)” was originally dedicated to the Isley Brothers’ mother, Sally, and in the original, Ronal Isley takes a thoughtful approach that turns ever more slightly seductive as the song goes on. His gentle sighs halfway through the song do signal a surrender that’s anything but filial, but when his brothers join in angelically on the bridge, the song seems like it could serve any heart’s need. The multi-layered meanings of the Isleys’ balladry were key in establishing the Quiet Stormstyle — an African-American counterpart to soft rock, stimulating the sweet dreams of aspirational listeners, many of them working women, in the calmer but still transformative years after the Black Power movement’s peak. Songs like “At Your Best (You Are Love),” with lyrics like “you’re a positive motivating force within my life,” stressed individual strength and fulfillment as an important part of uplifting the race.
Ocean’s artful move is to create a kind of dialogue between Aaliyah and Ronald Isley in his song, showing how the loveman and the ingénue can coexist within one consciousness. His voice is actually pitched higher than Aaliyah’s, and it’s even more minimal. Someone with a Jungian psychoanalytic bent might say he’s leaning heavily into his anima on those heavenward notes. But he also drops into a lower register, recalling how Ronald Isley employed his supple tenor to inject some machismo into his most tender pronouncements. Ending on a high note, Ocean makes us think about the way Aaliyah herself managed to be assertive even when gentle, and how her claim on a performance by one of soul’s most revered father figures made a case for giving the feminine voice equal respect, even when it expressed itself quietly.
Frank Ocean is hardly unusual in embracing a fluid gender identity while working within the R&B idiom. From Little Richard to Sam Cooke to Etta James to Jimi Hendrix to Patti Labelle to Prince to Aaliyah herself, the artists who’ve moved the legacy forward have had deep fun expanding on received notions of “man” and “woman.” Ocean’s contribution is to explode stereotypes without a lot of bravado; he’s naturally more than one person at once. This simple musical gesture toward the softest voice and one of the most resonant mighty ones, highlighting the opposite qualities in each, shows how we all are multiple beings, in truth.