R&B Singer Tank On Writing ‘I Can Be’ & ‘What If for Aaliyah & Producers Bud’da & J. Dub

Written by: Kenneth Ware – April, 2020 12:29pm pst


While enduring the stay-at-home order issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, R&B singer Tank guided me on a trip down Blackground Records memory lane. The “Maybe I Deserve” singer collaborated with the “Rock the Boat” songbird on her final studio album, a well-received collection of songs that mapped her personal growth during the five years since her second full-length, 1996’s One in a Million.

Aaliyah means “highest, most exalted one” in Arabic. The self-titled project was a daring, diverse exploration of a young woman experiencing unfaithful companions (“U Got Nerve”), bliss (“It’s Whatever”), gossip and envy (“Loose Rap”), physical abuse (“Never No More”), unrequited love (“I Care 4 U”), and everything in between, coming out of it that much stronger: boasting self-confidence, maturity, and a healthy self-respect. 

Credit: Blackground Records / Virgin Records America

Though Aaliyah hadn’t yet become a writer, she was inordinately good at picking songs, absorbing them, and interpreting through her bright, wispy soprano. On this project, she wanted to show that she had an edge and that she was sexy. She called her former background singer, R&B muscle man Tank. 

“She said, ‘I need you to write me songs like this,’” Tank revealed. “I said, ‘I got you.’”

Tank joined producers Bud’da and J. Dub in the studio with this notion: Aaliyah did not stick to a cut-and-paste formula in her music.

Embed from Getty Images

“When he [Bud’da] played the tracks for me,” Tank added, “I said this is an opportunity for Aaliyah to be something that nobody expected her to be.”

Mission accomplished. Aaliyah handpicked two heavy metal and rock-influenced songs penned by Tank: “I Can Be” and “What If.” Both recordings ripped her familiar R&B sound to shreds.

“I couldn’t believe I had two song placements,” Tank confessed.

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There was only one. Not in a million but EVER!..🙏🏾💙

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On the first track, Aaliyah seductively suggests a weekend-only indecent relationship with a “fine like expensive wine” man romantically linked to another woman. 

“I knew it would be somewhat controversial but I didn’t mind it,” Aaliyah said in an interview featured on the I Care 4 U DVD.

Aaliyah croons on the just-under-three-minute track: “I can be another reason you’re up at night / I can be all the things you thought she might / I can be on the side / That would be alright.” 

Credit: Blackground Records

“She was grown grown,” Tank joked. “This was way before you said two words back to back [to express emphasis].”

On “What If,” Aaliyah attacks the male-female dual stereotype and fires off-color words to her two-timing lover without a second thought. She even sneeringly offers her two cents while acknowledging his known duplicity: “If you’re going to cheat, burn the receipt from the hotel room.” 

“These are real-life situations and conversations and it surprised people to hear Aaliyah say it,” Tank said.

Credit: Vibe Magazine

The album was released on July 7, 2001, by Blackground Records and Virgin Records America. It was an international hit, according to Billboard. One month later, Aaliyah died in a plane crash on her way back to Miami from Abaco Island, where she had finished filming the video for the album’s third single, “Rock the Boat,” directed by Hype Williams.

“Aaliyah was the sweetest, kindest, and coolest,” Tank said. “She was always my biggest cheerleader.”

Embed from Getty Images

She was 22, but she had already reached a level of fame few could achieve in a lifetime.

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About The Author:

Kenneth Ware is a Texas native filled with a passion for writing, style, and a sense of humor. The Los Angeles-based writer’s credits include the New York Times, Houston Chronicle, and Washington Post.

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