Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bring the Noise deleted scene #60]

AALIYAH, Aaliyah
unpublished* review, Village Voice, August 2001

by Simon Reynolds

I was going to call myself an Aaliyah fan--after all, she's made two of my
all time favorite singles, "One In A Million" and "Are You That Somebody?"--but somehow the idea of an "Aaliyah fan" seems faintly absurd. There's dozens of websites devoted to the singer whose name is Swahili for "most exalted one", but beyond her obvious beauty and vocal skill, what are these folk latching onto? The sites are uniformly thin on biographical content or back story. Of all the premier league R&B goddesses, Aaliyah seems the most blank: she doesn't even have a persona as such, let alone exhibit actual this-is-me personality. This is a young woman who's been involved in the music industry for most of her 22 years, working her way up the rungs from the age of nine. In a recent Billboard interview, droning fluent bizspeak about the importance of "versatility" and the need to pace your career, unfurling cliches about creative "chemistry" and thriving on "pressure", Aaliyah comes over as a dour professional and a workaholic strategist who's cannily diversified into movies like Romeo Must Die and Queen of the Damned.

More than just impersonal, there's something almost immaterial about Aaliyah
(it's hard to imagine her flossing her teeth, or wiping her bottom). Aaliyah might be best understood, and enjoyed, then as a figment--a phantom of cathode-ray dazzle and studio-processed breath--concocted by an ensemble of stylists, choreographers, make-up artists, personal trainers, lighting technicians, video directors, song-doctors (like her main writer, Static from Playa), and, not least, trackmasters like Timbaland, her primary production foil until now. Timbaland has said he uses Aaliyah as "a probe" (itself an oddly depersonalized phrase), a vehicle for testing his most far-out ideas in the "urban" marketplace. That metaphor fits "One In A Million", the 1996 smash whose stutterfunk kick drums created the rhythmic template for the last five years of R&B and rap, and it works for 1998's "Are You That Somebody?",
which took the stop-start groove thing to the brink of rhythmic arrest. But the sole novelty of last year's "Try Again," its acid-house Roland 303 bassline, was fresh only in context (urban radio), while this year's "We Need A Resolution" continues the decline in daring, showcasing no new moves whatsoever. Everything in the song is decidedly deja for Tim-watchers, from the snake-charmer flute motifs ("Big Pimpin'") and tabla-like percussion ("Get UR Freak On") to the sinister slither of the reversed-sounding techno riffs ("Snoopy Trak," off Jay-Z's Vol. 3). With his two other cuts on Aaliyah's new album being the catchy but unstartling "More Than A Woman" and "I Care 4 U", a five year old, Missy-penned out-take from the One In A Million album sessions, there's a suspicion that Timbaland shot his wad on So Addictive and is all innovated out for the time being.

The other producers involved in Aaliyah--Keybeats, Inc (a/k/a Rapture & E-Seats), Bud' Da, and J-Dub a/k/a Rockstar-- aren't probing any outer limits either. The result is an album that is unspectacular, but very listenable. From the ungainly title/chorus down, "We Need A Resolution" wasn't exactly singular as a single, but its midtempo understatedness works just fine as an album opener. The same applies to most everything here: Aaliyah's all album tracks and no obvious hits, but it's expertly paced and programmed, the whole stronger than any individual part. Make it past the first, underwhelmed listen and its cumulative seductiveness kicks in.

Rapture & E-Seats's stand-out "Rock The Boat" is all diffuse sensuality and shimmering sleekness. The song's "adult" lyrics--"stroke it for me/work it to the middle/change positions"--are something of a maturity move for Aaliyah, and not wholly convincing. She doesn't really do "hot", it doesn't suit her gritless voice, at times so snowy-textured and sparing with the melisma that it's almost white. Showing more skin than usual, draped in snakes and caked in vampy make-up, she looked uncomfortable in the "Resolution" video, and you can't really imagine
her mucking in with the harlots of "Lady Marmalade". Until now, her two primary modes have been near-virginal devotion ("One in a Million", "4 Page Letter") and tension, a yearning-but-holding-back wariness of love. Both "Are You That Somebody" and "Try Again" are premised on the idea of Aaliyah as hard-to-get, while "Resolution" is all about people not getting (it) on.

Outside these two modes, Aaliyah doesn't fare so well. The twittery-vocaled
anti-wife abuse schlock of "Never No More" is a calculated display of versatility, announcing "I can deal with heavy topics". "U Got Nerve" is a weak stab at Beyonce-style toughness, and "I Refuse", from its I-am-woman-hear-me-roar defiance to the baroque'n'roll bombast of J. Dub's arrangement, is a "Bills Bills Bills" knock-off two years tardy. Mind you, this Austro-Hungarian Rhapsody might be the album's most authentic Aaliyah moment, given that her all-time favorite band is apparently Queen!

On two songs, you get a glimpse of Aaliyah as a potential auteur, rather than just a key component of hit records, the brand name front for a collective of expert technicians. Bud'Da's "I Can Be" is Aaliyah at her most frosty, shrouded in a skein of glassy guitarscree that seems to belong more on a Banshees or Cocteaus album. And the J.Dub-prod. "What If," daubed in garish metal-funk guitar, even sees Aaliyah rock out with a modicum of sass. The song's sheer overwraughtness feels cathartic after so much mature'n'demure restraint.

Hints, if not of darkness or deepness, of at least an aspiration in that direction: Aaliyah as ice queen of Gothic R&B! "I Can Be" especially is a glimpse of the more audacious album Aaliyah could have been, if, for instance, the singer had
done a collaboration with Trent Reznor as she once improbably contemplated with apparently genuine enthusiasm ("I think he's a genius!", she gushed). For the time being, though, Aaliyah is a fine third album. And Aaliyah remains a exquisite cipher.

* unpublished: this had to be pulled at the minute having been written and edited and ready-to-roll but then Aaliyah died in that awful plane crash.

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