"(At Your Best) You Are Love" x3
I adore cover songs. Covers allow anyone to peer into another artist's work and breathe new life, from young and upcoming musicians to established, world-famous superstars. Some may think covers detract from original music, but when artists can bring something new to the table, whether they change up the tempo, add a new instrument, or fixate on a certain element, this new meaning helps create a collective feeling and prolong the song's history.
Similar to sampling, cover versions can bring out the best in a song and tap into any previously unforeseen potential. Sometimes covers are much better than the original. For example, Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" lacks Jimi Hendrix's raw singing and psychedelic haze. Another example is how Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" doesn't light a candle to Whitney Houston's stunning Academy award-winning rendition (but we still love you, Dolly!).
I think this sentiment holds especially true for R&B. There are so many different avenues to making smooth and soulful R&B music, which leaves a lot of freedom when addressing the creative aspect of these songs. Love songs specifically leave a lot of room for imagination since it's often less about painting a specific scenario than describing certain feelings.
When thinking of love songs, I don't believe there's any piece of art on the planet that encapsulates the feelings of adoration, despair, confusion, romance, and everlasting love in a single intimate moment than the song "At Your Best." Originally written and performed by the Isley Brothers, the song has been covered numerous times, most notably by Aaliyah and Frank Ocean.
Despite this, many songs are nearly impossible to re-imagine just because they're so perfect that a newer version could never fully capitalize on something distinct to include.
But "At Your Best (You Are Love)" is different. It's one of those unprecedented tunes where there is no right or wrong way to sing it. The song has so much room for emotional depth that each artist can uniquely guide the lyrics, even though it originates from the same source material.
On any day, depending on my mood, how much the sun is shining, or the amount of sleep I got, I may prefer one version over the other. On most days, like today, it's an impossible choice. Since each artist brings something incomparable to the table, these three songs are all essential.
To understand "At Your Best," and why it's one of R&B's most magnificent love songs, it's necessary to look at the music from all sides and understand each perspective. So let's start at the beginning:
"(At Your Best) You Are Love" - Isley Brothers (1976)
The word legendary doesn't even begin to describe the Isley Brothers. Their nearly endless run of classics in the '60s and '70s laid the blueprint for countless rap masterpieces ("It Was a Good Day," "Big Poppa," "Tha Crossroads") and gorgeously combined jazz instrumentation with heartfelt, love ballads, and political anthems. But no matter what they sang about, they were just so damn smooth, all the time. The Isley Brothers are so talented, they could turn something like "Baby Shark" into a song about love and desire with a groovy beat attached.
Written and performed by the Isley Brothers, the original version of "(At Your Best)" appears on the Isleys' 1976 album "Harvest For the World." On nearly all their songs, lead singer Ronald Isley portrays a romance savant and his voice effortlessly oozes with groove and sex appeal. That said, this song is not about romance: but it is about love.
Dedicated to the Isleys' mother, Sally, their version is an uplifting ode about gratitude and appreciation. This sentiment makes lines like "you're a positive motivating force within my life" stand out and apply to family life.
Sometimes it's hard to tell by the enchanting melody and soothing harmonies whether Ronald Isley is trying to woo someone or not, but this is a song about affection.
More importantly, the resounding message is not being afraid to be your true self and appreciation towards the people who have accepted you.
The song's underlying message is solidarity. Referring to the Black Power movement of the 1970s, this uplifting theme notes the importance of working as a unit, even in the face of racial tensions.
The highlight of the song is the luscious chorus, especially the song's climax when Ronald Isley croons the word "love." Isley stretches it out like a "luhuuuhuuuuuuuuuve" that doesn't sound exasperating or like he's reaching out for someone to hold. Instead, it feels as if he's reached a satisfying peace. It perfectly ties into the song's feel-good energy and easily fits the mood.
Undoubtedly, "At Your Best" fits comfortably within the Isleys' all-time best songs and is an epic tribute song for the ages.
"At Your Best (You Are Love)" - Aaliyah (1994)
In 1994, the year "Friends" first aired and OJ Simpson fled down the 91 freeway in a white Bronco, the world was introduced to singing sensation Aaliyah through her incredible first album "Age Aint Nothing But a Number." Though just a 15-year-old prodigy at the time, Aaliyah became the princess of R&B overnight and perfectly bridged the connection between mainstream appeal and old-school cadence through her music.
Aaliyah shines on her entire debut record, showcasing her gentle, angelic vocals and popstar potential. When it comes to "At Your Best," it's easy to see why she's one of the best vocalists of the era.
Aaliyah's version is by far the best known and was so successful that the song reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, while also introducing another generation to the Isleys' greatness. Her legacy has become synonymous with this hit and provided R&B devotees with a timeless gem.
On this record, Aaliyah is openly expressing herself. She's laid-back, relaxed, and feeling lovey-dovey, with one goal in mind: explain how she feels.
In someone else's hands, this song could've been an over-produced melodramatic bore, but Aaliyah gravitated towards this song. Despite her youth, Aaliyah sounds mature, and she doesn't play down to her audience by simplifying things.
"There are times when I find / You want to keep yourself from me / When I don't have the strength / I'm just a mirror of what I see."
Though her attraction is assured, this love is complicated, and not knowing how her crush feels leaves things uncertain. It's not easy to express her feelings, and whenever he's emotionally unavailable, she blames things on herself and starts viewing their connection in a negative light.
On the hook, there's something so beautiful and sweet about the way Aaliyah softly sings "let me know, let me know." She doesn't know what the outcome is going to be, she pleads to be on the same page, but in this single moment, she is at peace with her intentions.
"But if you feel, oh like I feel / Confusion can give way to doubt / For there are times when I fall short of what I say / What I say I'm all about, all about."
Aaliyah is confessing her faults, accepting that she isn't perfect, and realizing the truth is necessary for a relationship to work. She wants to make things crystal clear and allows herself to become vulnerable.
Her cover keeps most of the smooth elements of the Isley version intact but updated for a modern audience. The stunning production drifts more towards neo-soul than the new-jack swing sound on much of her album and is tailored to the song's theme of burgeoning love and confusion. Aaliyah's classic take is a quintessential love song for any occasion, whether you're feeling moody, motivated, or discontent.
"At Your Best (You Are Love)" - Frank Ocean (2015)
A few years removed from the acclaim of "Channel Orange." and inspired by Aaliyah's version, Frank Ocean released a cover of "At Your Best" on his Tumblr in February 2015 to coincide with Aaliyah's 36th birthday. He later decided to include a slightly altered version of the song in his cryptic 2016 video-album "Endless."
His rendition differs from the other two because it comes off as much more intimate. While Aaliyah and the Isleys' point of view is sentimental and displays the struggles of relationships in a more optimistic way, Ocean is yearning for a sense of purpose in his love life, and things sound bleak.
Throughout, Ocean is remarkable over the melancholy and barely beating instrumental, and it might be his best purely vocal performance ever. As only Ocean can do, he pulls no punches on the song's vulnerability and affection.
Ocean's delivery comes off as much more philosophical, and sometimes he even seems hopeless. It seems this scenario is just one more instance in a pattern of things not working out.
From Ocean's perspective, he's lost the feeling of love as he begs and pleads to get this companion back in his life. With every verse, the pleas become increasingly more desperate, and each lyric is heartfelt, cutting deep.
Similar to his cover of "Moon River," Ocean is adept at slowing things down, allowing the listener to stop in their tracks and soak in the emotion. This listening experience feels like being inside of a sullen echo chamber, contemplating how everything good has slipped away. Yet, though it seems that things ended badly, there's no indication of regret, only a lasting glimpse of hope that perseverance is possible.
Aaliyah's version of the chorus is very touching, but Ocean's falsetto on the line "let me know" is a transcendent, perfect note, ascending the track to an astronomical level.
Overall, Ocean replaces the grooves and excess by cutting the production down to the bare basics, with a stark, almost depressing revamp. His version shows his distinct range and solidifies him as one of music's most revered singers while providing a treat for his fans.
DISCLAIMER: If you'd like to listen to Ocean's version as much as I do, I suggest finding a CDQ of his "Endless" album online and downloading it onto whatever streaming service you enjoy using. That way, you don't have to sit through an hour-long music video of him doing woodworking to reach the song you like.