Words by Karan Teli
It started in 1976.
Harvest for the World. Album number 14 of The Isley Brothers incredible catalogue of music. There it was at track number 5 –
(At Your Best) You Are Love.
A classic, funk and soul sounding ballad from The Isley Brothers. The song itself is them showing their appreciation to a woman in their life and how the love, strength and motivation she brings to them makes them who they are. ‘You’re a positive motivating force within my life’ is sung throughout, showing this woman just how much she means to them. Unsurprisingly, the song is dedicated to their mother. It makes sense. Surely only the love and strength given by a mother can be this motivational and impactful upon somebody and be used to create a song so beautiful and peaceful, yet with such a positive and thankful message to one particular person. A song like this can only be about a mother’s love.
18 years later. Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Aaliyah’s classic debut album. There it appears at track 6 –
At Your Best (You Are Love)
The lyrics are still the same. Word for word. But it’s not the same song. This time it was a 15 year old girl, singing entirely in falsetto, putting her stamp on the R&B world. The effect of this means that even though it’s the same lyrics as the Isley Brothers original, the end receiver is different. This isn’t about the love received from a mother; this is about someone else. She let us know that she can revive a funk and soul classic into her own R&B song, without sounding like an imitation or straight copy. At age 15. Girl was really ahead of her time. This version of the song was so good that it peaked at #6 on the Billboard 100. It also helps that this song, along with Aaliyah’s entire debut album was produced by R&B King R. Kelly.
Personally, this was the first version of At Your Best (You Are Love) that I heard in my life. It wasn’t till years later I actually discovered where the song had originated and went back and listened to the original Isley Brothers version, and then even further in the future became huge admirers of their music.
Fast forward to 2010.
Thank Me Later – Drake’s debut album. Years before Drake’s fandom with Aaliyah reached its climax in 2013 with ‘Enough Said’, a glimpse of it was shown on track 9 of his debut album – Unforgettable. Aaliyah’s vocals are sampled. You already know from what song. 16 years after Aaliyah’s version and 34 years after the Isley Brothers original, which is older than Drake’s current age, Drake gave the new generation a chance to hear and perhaps revisit some of the classic music that has come before them. The best thing that a sample can do is make you fall in love with the original.
Now we’re in 2015.
January 16th 2015, to be exact, what would have been Aaliyah’s 36th birthday. This was right in the middle of Frank Ocean’s ‘where art thou’ stage, where the man had literally vanished out of the bright spotlight that was on him and was probably in London, Soho, living in a luxury apartment loving every second of it. But on his Tumblr page, barely in use at the time, there it was. A 5 minute audio file, no cover art, no description, entitled –
At Your Best (You Are Luhh)
39 years later, At Your Best (You Are Love) was still here, in the hands of one of the most talented musicians in the world. His version is completely different from the two that came before him; his voice is the main, and at times, the only instrument used. The song went from funk and soul to falsetto R&B to an out and out, singing-from-the-soul ballad. The passion Frank sings with creates a feeling of love and empathy from first note to last. Whether Frank is singing directly to a current or former lover or inspiration in his life, or just paying homage to 2 artists who were clearly influential on him, we’ll probably never know.
Jump forward one more year. 2016.
Social media has exploded. Music websites and blogs have been waiting for this moment. Out of the blue, Frank Ocean’s just released a visual album entitled Endless. Press play and there’s a nearly empty blank room, with pieces of wood. After the long 4 year hiatus and never-ending wait, the music starts playing. And there it is, the intro song –
At Your Best (You Are Luhh)
This time there’s instruments, it’s not just Frank’s vocals like the ‘Tumblr version’. James Blake, Jonny Greenwood and The London Contemporary Orchestra are all credited. Look deeper into the credits and there they are – The Isley Brothers.
40 Years Later.
‘Nothing ever beats the original.’ I’ll let you listen to all 3 versions and decide for yourself. But one thing is for certain –
Good music really does live forever.