The 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.