30
Oct 16

AALIYAH – “More Than A Woman”

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#917, 19th January 2002

Aaliyah MOAWThe Queen Of The Damned soundtrack, released later in 2002, is a fearful pile of tosh, a body count of nu-metal second-raters which illustrates a dilemma the film didn’t totally resolve: just which children of the night was this thing aimed at – nostalgic goths, or their snarling mallrat stepchildren? Through the film stepped Aaliyah, ignoring the question by offering a third option. Recently dead, a bigger star than ever, her immortal character moved like “More Than A Woman” sounded – seductively unnatural, a vision of skin and metal animated in Ray Harryhausen stop-motion.

This is our only meeting with Aaliyah, but it’s not a typical Aaliyah single: she didn’t make those, the smooth adaptability of her singing encouraging collaborators to push their margins. And speaking of collaborators, it’s also our first directly credit encounter with Tim Mosley, Timbaland, who took her as one of his muses. We’ve glimpsed Timbaland by reflection, via imitators and co-creators, and even here he’s occluded – co-writer Static Major heard the original “More Than A Woman” and felt he could do more with it.

Implicitly, it’s Static Major we have to thank for the song’s lushness, breaking off from Aaliyah’s two previous Timba-produced tracks, the playful “Try Again”, garlanded with acid squelches, and the bubbling, desperate paranoia of “We Need A Resolution”. Brilliant, but emotionally ugly and self-lacerating, that song had been only a modest hit. After finishing the vampire flick, Aaliyah shot a video in the Bahamas for a more conventional follow-up, gorgeous R&B sex jam “Rock The Boat”. She took a plane back to the States. It crashed on take-off. All nine aboard died.

Posthumous hits by rock stars tend to come under particular scrutiny – listened to a little harder with hindsight, whether for fatal signs (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”) or unbearable, poignant hope (“Just Like Starting Over”). Aaliyah escaped this: she died like Buddy Holly had, in a sudden, stupid accident, and with a similar sense of might-have-been. “Rock The Boat” was a big, deserved hit; there’s no darkness in it, and it can stand as a celebration of a remarkable woman.

But it was “More Than A Woman”, released months after her death, in the chill of winter, that performed better, in the UK at least. And even when you’ve filtered out tragic coincidence and cinematic pantomime, this song does contain a darkness.

It hides in the track’s opulence. While “Rock The Boat” is honestly and happily about the joy of sex, “More Than A Woman” is about its promise. The juddering bassline, the luscious swirl of the string sample, and more of Timbaland’s low-end blurts, make for a heady, overpowering combination even before Aaliyah starts singing. When she does, she adds to the sense of sensual derangement, with multi-tracked vocal lines first overlapping and echoing each other (“Tempt me (tempt me), drive me (drive me)”), then ad libbing around the chorus and pushing it to the background, and finally – after the “Do you wanna” middle eight – being back-masked into a series of spectral gasps which haunt the mix at the back of the final chorus.

This fusion of vocal and production effects isn’t exactly foreign to early 00s pop – it’s similar to what I’ve been praising about Britney Spears tracks. But here it works differently, because Aaliyah is such a poised, controlled singer. She sounds neither incorporated into the production machine (like Britney) or using it to amplify her force (like early Beyonce). Instead – like all their tracks together – she treats Timbaland’s production as a space to play in, curling vocal lines around the hooks and beats. It was a role that could showcase her emotional range without her ever needing to overplay her hand and belt the songs out. On the tracks with more overtly experimental production Aaliyah could work as an anchor, teaching you how to feel about the sound-world unfolding around you. On “More Than A Woman” she gets to be the source of the strangeness herself.

And of the darkness. As the song unfolds, the relationship becomes more clearly an obsessive one, intoxicating but illicit. The markers are there from the start – “morning massages / new bones in your closet”, in the lyric’s best moment – and they only rise. “Chase me, leave me / There’s still no separation” coos Aaliyah – a verse later and she’s comparing them to Bonnie and Clyde. Like the entwining and retwining vocal lines, the lyrics intensify “More Than A Woman”, hint at a core of the uncanny and unhealthy in the song.

Which means that when I think of Aaliyah in her last film, it’s not the ropey actual soundtrack I hear in my head: it’s this. And when I hear this, it’s not the video I see, it’s Aaliyah caught in cinematic undeath. A perfect hit for Winter, “More Than A Woman” is future goth, a plunge into a velvet abyss.

9

Comments

  1. 1
    CriticSez on 30 Oct 2016 #

    Thanks for posting.

    In the meantime, I’m fully up to date, and have reviewed everything up to today. This year doesn’t look good.

    This IS definitely good, considering the plethora of imitation R&B songs now.

    7.1 (7, for this post)

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 30 Oct 2016 #

    Aaliyah’s death was clearly a factor in this reaching number 1, but I’m curious to know whether this was a hit on the dance floor as the subtleties of the vocal and production seem best appreciated (by me anyway) in a more personal space. I think if I heard this while driving it might pass me by but listening to this on headphones I find myself caught up in the rich variety of sounds and rhythms. The vocal agility is impressive but never showy encouraging close listening. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a huge pity that it achieved success in such circumstances.

  3. 3
    wichitalineman on 30 Oct 2016 #

    This feels like a peak in the golden age of avant R&B. I pine for hits as adventurous as this. Try Again was pretty close to perfect, sweet and teasing with a slightly desperate edge, but this is a notch higher for me: those vocal overlaps, the subtle clashing of the chords in the vocals and the string sample, the song’s endless promise and yearning.

    There are Latin percussive touches that Leiber & Stoller would recognise, like an updated Stand By Me. But for me what really makes it are the shifting, overlapping vocal lines which roll with the strings and against the strictness of the rhythm, creating something like an uneasy, sensual lullaby.

  4. 4
    Mark M on 30 Oct 2016 #

    Definitely a song worth making a return for. I marginally prefer Try Again and We Need A Resolution, but I can see this is bigger without being big (it’s Aaliyah), surging, more immediate but still a supreme example from that extraordinary moment in r’n’b. She was a massive loss.

    (I’ve never seen the film).

  5. 5
    Rufus Headroom on 30 Oct 2016 #

    This feels a little too repetetive to me, like the song just swirls around in a typhoon without making any waves. Just strikes me as bein’ a bit dull. Bland beatwork, but Aaliyah sounds nice. Y’all have to agree though…that video CGI is just the worst innit?

  6. 6
    IJGrieve on 31 Oct 2016 #

    Welcome back! Been looking forward to 2002 on Popular

  7. 7
    Izzy on 31 Oct 2016 #

    Great record, I’d go for a nine as well. I find her work a cold, slippery fish, like an art installation whose precise intention will remain forever obscure, but this is its finest realisation.

    I’m puzzled by the idea of her curling her vocals into the track’s hidden spaces though. I’d always assumed the opposite, and that Timbaland built his tracks around the vocals. In fact, the overlapping lines here suggest that that was probably a single process. I find it unlikely that any of his singers got to do their thing over a completed track.

  8. 8
    JLucas on 31 Oct 2016 #

    Welcome back! I was starting to fear the worst.

    This is a nine from me too. We Need a Resolution would’ve been a ten though, it’s one of my favourite Timbaland productions ever. There’s a poise and elegance to Aaliyah’s vocal performances that I find totally bewitching. The combination with Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s sparse, futuristic production style was just dynamite.

    I don’t think she wrote much/any of her own material, but she was a song stylist in the classic sense. I’d have been fascinated to see her her career might have progressed over the years. It’s easy to romanticise the deceased, but I can easily see her having evolved into an RnB auteur along the lines of Kelis and Janelle Monae, or perhaps landing some of Rihanna’s more leftfield releases.

    A very sad loss to music, but even the small catalogue she left behind (3 studio albums and the inevitable slew of archive-clearing post-mortem cash-in releases) shows immense depth, range and promise. Are You That Somebody, Try Again, If Your Girl Only Knew, pretty much the entirety of the self-titled album, to name just a few highlights. In terms of vocal showcases, her cover of the Isley Brothers’ At Your Best (You Are Love) is also gorgeous.

  9. 9
    AMZ1981 on 31 Oct 2016 #

    Of course it’s very hard to separate this record from the surrounding circumstances but unfortunately I do have to ask the question; how big a hit would this have been if Aaliyah hadn’t died so tragically? It got to number one with a 30,000 sale while the market was still waking up from the holiday period, a commentator on the Hey Baby thread noted (in a discussion of chart climbs) that Puretone’s addicted to bass would have beaten More Than A Woman had it not suffered some pre embargo sales and seven days later it dropped to number five.

    I suppose More Than A Woman is very skillfully put together for those who like this kind of thing. I personally find it dreary and pointless; nothing to dislike but nothing to like either. Try Again was better, so was Rock The Boat.

    At the same time More Than A Woman does allow us to take stock of Aaliyah’s career as a whole. Achieving fame at such a young age had destroyed many stars before her, it would destroy others in years to come; Aaliyah – and despite the distraction of a (probable) sexual relationship with a much older man seems to have sidestepped that, her film appearances suggested a versatile talent and of course just a few years later two R&B princesses dominated popular culture. She had her moment but would never get the chance to take it.

    Finally, although there were a few more posthumous releases and she would occasionally be resurrected as a featured artist; thankfully she wouldn’t be exploited in the way two already deceased but (scarily) bunnied rappers were and was largely left to rest in peace.

  10. 10
    Chelovek na lune on 31 Oct 2016 #

    Fantastic record. It took me a while to understand it, though, as so much is about the production, the tracking, the sounds – so out there when you listen on headphones, the way Aliyah’s voice almost becomes an instrument and part of the whole texture of the track, rather than purely or primarily being a singer over the music. It’s not a conventional pop song at all, and it’s not wildly accessible. Not all of the lyrics are up to much, either. Though a few, key ones, absolutely are. “Try Again” had had Timberland pushing the limits a bit too, but there was a straightforward song with lyrics there as the key part of it – I still think of that as Aaliyah’s no 1, even though it wasn’t, just because it’s rather (but not much) more straightforward.

    Here -the “I don’t think you’re ready for this thing” (hinted at instrumentally from the introduction) seems the key part, the key that unlocks the whole record. The uncertainty, the un-ease, the tension of excitement and hope. And almost a fairground-like motif follows it for a lengthy instrumental section – how can you not dance to it? Switch to a farting bass bring in some harsher percussive strikes and it’s the end. At least on the 7 inch. But in short this is a record you can’t just listen to – you have to get inside it, swim with it ,let it embrace you and take you over.

    Easily a 10 or a 9. Probably a 10 actually. Really quite breathtaking.

    What I’ve never understood is why the choice of singles released for much of Aaliyah’s career was so poor – with a few (mostly quite obvious, and quite brilliant, exceptions), too many dull ballads or straightforward R&B/ pop numbers that didn’t show off her immense talent at all. Sensibly many of them are left off what was essentially her “greatest hits” album, “I Care 4 U”, but with such talent on display (and I also have to cite her vocal performance on “At Your Best (You Are Love), it’s like she was wasted – until Timberland came along and made – well, several, extraordinary singles, of which this is probably the best. Truly her early death was a great loss musically.

  11. 11
    weej on 2 Nov 2016 #

    Not much to add on this one, except to agree that it’s pretty wonderful – a 9.5 to Try Again’s 10 IMO.

    I do feel slightly put-out about Addicted To Bass not getting to #1, as (though it’s not actually that good at all) its failure meant we had to wait until 2011 for some drum & bass to finally get there, much better drum & bass, admittedly.

  12. 12
    ThePensmith on 3 Nov 2016 #

    My first encounter of Aaliyah was with the release of “Try Again” two years prior to this on my copy of Now 46 – I’d not heard her work before that, but I instantly loved that single and still do now, it’s so timeless in its production and delivery and I had it on loop all through summer 2000.

    I remember as well her being on the cover of NME a week or two before her death thinking she was about to be on the brink of mega stardom – and then the complete shock I felt when I heard on Radio 1 she’d passed away. It was the same when, just under a year after she died, we got the news that Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes had died in a car accident just a few months shy of the new TLC album coming out. It’s easy to dissolve into platitudes where notable deaths are concerned but they really were and still are two great talents that were on the brink of further greatness cruelly taken away too soon.

    With Aaliyah, I promptly went and bought the “I Care 4 U” best of when it was released at the end of 2002 and was even more impressed by what was on it – I loved “Back and Forth”, “Don’t Know What to Tell Ya” and “We Need a Resolution”. As Tom so rightly puts it ‘More Than a Woman’ is a sensual but classy record, leaving something to the imagination with what it promises.

    It was also the beginning of my obsession with Timbaland’s production work, although it’s interesting to note that there is a gap between this and his next notable bunny of five years – the closest he’d get again in that time being the superb “Cry Me a River” for Justin Timberlake which peaked at #2 in February 2003.

    #9 – it’s interesting you bring up the first week sale of this, as this really was the start of single sales taking a massive hit. Even by previous January standards it was a poor sale but it was indicative of where the industry was starting to head – I mentioned before on Afroman of my first encounter of someone with a copy of that single on a blank recordable Maxell CD, just a few months later they had “Addicted to Bass” and a few others from that time on another one, from this thing they called “Limewire”. To think even that is now something of a bygone relic!

  13. 13
    Andrew Farrell on 3 Nov 2016 #

    #11 – Bunny forfend, but we won’t have to wait all that long!

  14. 14
    thefatgit on 3 Nov 2016 #

    Nice to see Tom active again. I’d be shouting 10 until the cows came home if “Try Again” were here instead of “More Than A Woman”. That buzzing bassline and Timba referencing “I Know You Got Soul” just pushes so many buttons for me. However, MTAW is no less worthy, when you consider what 2002 has to offer this lovely little corner of the internet.

    I have a lot of time for the R&B of the early noughties, and I guess Timbaland has a lot to do with that. MTAW dials down the Timba-isms and allows Aaliyah to shine and rightly so. I guess it’s par for the course if we consider the “what ifs” had Aaliyah survived, and Beyonce seems like a ready-made comparison. An acting career? Possibly very successful within a particular niche. I only have Romeo Must Die, which she emerged from critically unscathed and Queen Of The Damned to go by, but I feel there was something interesting beneath the vamp armour, mouth prosthetics and colour contact lenses from the latter. High-profile relationship? The speculation that she had become “Mrs R. Kelly” at 15 was hard to shake off, but said more about R. Kelly’s proclivities than paint her as a vulnerable star-struck teenager. Immortal diva? Here’s where the comparison breaks down, because Aaliyah wasn’t exactly in the same ballpark, and I fear her smoother, more subtle vocal talents placed her on a different career path, unfortunately cut short, of course. (8)

  15. 15
    weej on 4 Nov 2016 #

    #13 – Really? Can’t think what else would count, and Wikipedia throws up nothing either

  16. 16
    Andrew Farrell on 4 Nov 2016 #

    No bother – I’ll make a note to remind you when that particular train reaches its station.

  17. 17
    Ed on 4 Nov 2016 #

    An opportunity here for my regular gripe that you can’t get Aaliyah’s best music on Spotify or iTunes, apparently because of some convoluted legal battle. (Some details here: http://thejasminebrand.com/2016/07/11/aaliyah-producer-accuses-uncle-owing-royalties/)

    Now The Beatles and AC/DC have succumbed, I think it leaves her and Def Leppard as the only remaining big-name holdouts against the download / streaming era. With the Leps it’s also about a royalties dispute, IIRC.

    I know I should value the materiality of the precious physical CD, but actually it’s just a pain.

    As for the song, it turns out I agree with everyone else. It’s an 8/9, where Try Again, One in a Million or AYTS would have been 10s. It’s lovely, but the melody is not quite as compelling or the production as startling as in her greatest songs.

  18. 18

    King Crimson also (and Fripp generally). With him it’s a West Country crank issue.

  19. 19
    Mark M on 4 Nov 2016 #

    Re17: But it’s weird – there’s more on there than at first appears, but it isn’t where it should be (i.e. on her ‘artist’ page*). So if you google ‘Aaliyah Spotify’ it will bring up the self-titled album (with three or so songs unavailable). And you can (eventually) find Are You That Somebody via Spotify’s search function, but it’s way down the page. So I think most of it is there, but it’s like they are trying to hide that it is.

    *At some point there seemed to be two different Aaliyah pages, too.
    (It’s impressive how vigilant Prince’s people seem to be at noticing that cover versions popping up on Spotify, which then disappear swiftly).

  20. 20
    Girl with Curious Hair on 4 Nov 2016 #

    I preferred “Try Again” when I was a kid but I think this tops it for me now: I get the sensuality now. It’s all in that staccato style, the tension and the release. Definitely agree with Wichitalineman that this was something of a golden age for R&B.

    Funnily the first 2 number ones of 2002 exposed a generation gap between my dad and me: I mourned Aaliyah, he mourned George Harrison.

    Also, reading this made me go back through her videos on Youtube, and to go off on a quick sartorial tangent I can say with certainty that she was the finest wearer of leather trousers that popular music has had since Jim Morrison.

  21. 21
    Izzy on 5 Nov 2016 #

    17: Chris Rea and Peter Gabriel are also more-or-less absent from spotify, I don’t know why.

    I wonder if that will affect perceptions of these acts in future – like how the absence of Led Zep singles or footage (plus their extreme unfashionability) rendered them pretty much invisible through my teens, ’til I got curious enough to seek them out for myself. Or whether we’re past that now, in the age of infinite availability (of one kind or another)?

  22. 22

    Lep, Rea and Gabriel have some showing on Tidal but not much. Proportionally, Aaliyah does well on Tidal (better than Lep, Rea and Gabriel in terms of her total oeuvre, though obviously — sadly — the total is a lot smaller than all three).

    Crimson has literally nothing on Tidal; and Fripp very little (and nothing that he’s the primary recording artist for).

    Prince is negligeable on Spotify, but very much present and correct on Tidal.

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 5 Nov 2016 #

    It’s worth a listen to SWV’s 1997 hit ‘Can We’ produced by Timbaland and Missy Elliott, a literal if more delicate antecedent of MTAW, heralding their signature sound that year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJGTwhl1Nrw

    Having been familiar with that I thought MTAW was quite a cheeky refit even if cut from the same cloth with the verses delivered the same melodically. I was watching Wookie performing at Reading in August 2001 when while on stage they announced her death – the only time I’ve heard such news in such a way at least.

    I don’t fully buy into the ‘golden age’ idea as I think it can obscure the equivalent excitement of the New Jack Swing era beforehand – otoh it’s good to have a sound spanning the later part of the 90s and the early 00s enjoy this kind of reputation and nostalgia.

  24. 24
    Ed on 5 Nov 2016 #

    For an eldritch living fossil like King Crimson, holding out against streaming seems entirely appropriate. If you want to listen to 21st Century Scizoid Man, you should have to look at the album cover.

    But Aaliyah, Def Lep and Chris Rea are all – more or less – creatures of the modern world. As Izzy says, it will be interesting to see whether their lack of online presence burnishes their reputation, or erases it.

    I guess in the 2020s we’ll get CD hipsters raving about this amazing unheard music. Club nights where they hook the Discman up to the sound system and play Are You That Somebody, Pour Some Sugar On Me and Games Without Frontiers.

  25. 25
    Ed on 5 Nov 2016 #

    @22 IIRC Jay-Z talked Prince into pulling his music from Spotify to drive subscriptions to Tidal. While leaving most of his own music on there.

    I see Tidal has the Aaliyah “best of” album, but that’s effectively the same thing as it not being available IMO.

  26. 26
    Duro on 17 Nov 2016 #

    Rashida Jones features in the video, alongside her (bunnied) then boyfriend.

  27. 27
    Alan on 17 Nov 2016 #

    That’s a great two-fer pop fact right there.

  28. 28
    Girl with Curious Hair on 17 Nov 2016 #

    I agree – I did not know that. I just watched and found the bunny on the decks, but couldn’t see Rashida. On a tangent, the early 2000s CGI really hasn’t aged well, has it?

  29. 29
    HARDTOGETHITS on 17 Nov 2016 #

    Def Leppard? Chris Rea? Peter Gabriel? King Crimson? Yeah, they may be h2gh on Spotify, but you can bet these lot haven’t tried to find the Piranhas or Cats UK, have they, eh Wichita?

  30. 30
    flahr on 18 Nov 2016 #

    My personal not-on-Spotify bugbear is “Things That Go Bump In The Night” by allSTARS*.

  31. 31
    Mark M on 18 Nov 2016 #

    Re28: SPOILER ALERT for anyone playing the ‘Where are the future stars game?’ (and some filler words to try to make sure what follows doesn’t appear in the preview…)

    She’s in a black flat cap, standing still (in front of the decks, I think) right near the end. I’d never noticed them before either (not that surprising I guess since the bulk of times I saw the video I would have had no idea who they were – and wouldn’t for another year or two).

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