The mid-late ’90s felt like a crisis point for hip-hop: the deepening rift between mainstream and underground rap, along with the lyrical focus on high-budget conspicuous consumption from platinum-selling artists, felt like breaking points that supposedly compromised what hip-hop was supposed to remain true to. Whether hip-hop needed to look back to its party-music roots or forge ahead to a different future than the hyper-commercialized one that looked inevitable, it felt to a lot of traditionalists and skeptics like something had to give. In retrospect, that seems like a temporary setback — the so-called “shiny suit era” was outsized, high-budgeted, and frequently preposterous, but complaints about the excess often obscured a great deal of the flat-out amazing music that made a wider impression on the pop world. And few artists left such a spectacular, hard-to-duplicate stamp on the era like Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott.
It’s easy enough to point out what Missy Elliott’s massive success as a woman in hip-hop meant for pop culture. Six platinum albums and thirty million sold just on her solo work is a hell of a figure on its own, and that’s before you factor in her contributions as a songwriter for artists like Jodeci, SWV, and Aaliyah. But even when she was joined at the hip to peak Timbaland — in his prime, as visionary a Top 40-friendly producer there ever was — there was always this sense of autonomy in Missy’s music, that she did what she did because she felt like forging her own path and it just turned out to be the kind of road a lot of people wanted to travel on. She rapped about sex with good-natured raunch midway between Moms Mabley and Redman, toyed with her appearance to emphasize the stylish unreal over the supposed ideal, and overall just widened the spectrum of what a woman was able to accomplish as an artist in an era where mainstream culture was drowning in angry-young-man machismo. She could sing about being in love or rap about exotic supercars, and sound like nobody but herself the whole time.
But from the release of her debut Supa Dupa Fly in 1997 through her (so far) last album The Cookbook in 2005, Missy wasn’t just a “woman in hip-hop” — she was a creative force to be reckoned with, the kind of artist Spin could put on their May ’98 cover alongside Thom Yorke and Ani DiFranco without a second thought. Even after a decade or two, her solo work sounds like an Afrofuturism that decided the future had finally arrived, with her writing careening between free-associative open verse and tight, old-school-minded party-rocking that picked up Afrika Bambaataa’s torch and shot its flames even higher. She bridged whatever audience and stylistic gaps there might’ve been between Brandy and Bjork, equally at home as a traditional R&B balladeer aiming for the heart or an unpredictable absurdist virtuoso gunning to freak you out. And those songs were made to last, riding off pure energy that’s sustained them over more than a decade. No wonder it felt like she stole the Super Bowl halftime show.
She also did a duet with Pootie Tang. Just throwing that in there in case you didn’t know or you forgot or something.
Her output over the nearly ten years since The Cookbook have felt conspicuous by her absence as a front-and-center act. She’s had a few sporadic singles scattered across an extended hiatus, one equally owing to creative restlessness (“your brain needs to refresh… so if you continuously put out music like that, stuff starts sounding redundant”), refocusing on behind-the-scenes work as a songwriter/producer, and a recently-won fight with Graves’ disease after being sidelined for years with pain. But renewed interest in her work after that aforementioned Super Bowl appearance has only proven that it feels less like a disappearance and more like her pausing to wait for everyone else to catch up. Here are ten reasons why.
10. “She’s A Bitch” (From 1999’s Da Real World)
Da Real World is a pretty weird record — a good weird, and the kind of step forward stylistically and in content that would lead to the greatness of Miss E… So Addictive, but weird nonetheless. It’s crammed with guest spots, including some hijackings that turn the headliner into an afterthought; because it’s 1999, nobody really thought twice about giving Eminem three whole verses on “Busa Rhyme,” for instance. But that’s how you win over the wary: lure them in with the Slim Shady, Redman, Big Boi, and Juvenile, then hit them with the revelation that Missy’s got an eccentric, sly lyrical depth that Supa Dupa Fly only hinted at. The theme to “She’s a Bitch” is clear, familiar, and something of a kick in the ass to late ’90s hip-hop sensibilities, where insults are reclaimed and strength comes from just how much of a threat you can pose to a man’s well-being in all kinds of ways. If Missy doesn’t punch you in the eye and/or mouth, she’ll outearn you, out-rhyme you, and command the club until you can only give in. The production is minimalist in all the right places: aside from the kicks, which serve as the de facto bassline, the actual drums are lower in the mix than just about everything else. Not like it matters when everything here hits that 1-2-3/shicka-shicka beat right on the dot. Bonus points for the ridiculously expensive, ridiculously iconic Hype Williams video, which is easily the single most 2015-looking piece of visual media to come out at the end of the 20th Century.
09. “Lose Control” (From 2005’s The Cookbook)
Missy’s spent most of her career being juxtaposed with Timbaland’s production style, so when she hits paydirt with another producer, it’s worth celebrating. That goes double if it’s a production of her own: “Lose Control,” the first single from The Cookbook, is Elliott going all in on an electro throwback. It’s savvier than the electroclash remnants that were still floating around mid-decade, mostly by sourcing both a strong antecedent in Cybotron’s legendary “Clear” and drawing from Hot Streak’s underrated electro-funk jam “Body Work” for the titular hook. The spirit-of-’83 sound is a no-brainer crowdpleaser, but it also draws a smart line from those origins through the Southern bass that would eventually transform into the futurist context that gave rise to Missy in the first place. So on the mic, she recognizes her status as a fan and a creator alike: she makes herself both the party-starter and the partier, dropping the beat that makes the ladies shake it and joining in herself. “Flow proper, head knocker, beat scholar, tail dropper” — no mutual exclusion here.
08. “Slide” (From 2002’s Under Construction)
Here we’ve got a deep-cut album track that missed out on single status because what club or radio station wouldn’t make it sound confoundingly alien? Rubber-legged, gelatin-waisted, and nitrous-headed, “Slide” is an overlooked gem that proved that Timbaland could make even the goofiest mutations of his East-of-everywhere beats bump like there’s no yesterday. Missy’s drawl matches it for “wait, what” appeal, in part because her flow is at its rewind-demanding peak. Her first verse scans like a masterclass in dekeing expectations that early bars set up; check out the way she machete-slashes through “Now fake a take and make ‘em holler atcha later/Shake ‘em wake ‘em and tell ‘em what to get my ass from Jacob’s.” And her shit-talk is both funny and individualistic; it’s hard to come up with the names of any early ’00s peers who could either think of or pull off double-dutch chant jokes like “You no-tooth granny with a hole in her panties” en route to the prime hater-shakeoff “they used to call me fatty ’til I got with Puff Daddy.”
07. “Scream a.k.a. Itchin'” (From 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive)
If you don’t watch yourself, you could easily fill more than half of the slots on a list like this with cuts from Elliott’s watershed classic Miss E… So Addictive. Missy’s best album and one of the most forward-thinking releases from a remarkably good year for music, it’s a record that did more than any before it to reconcile the worlds of hip-hop, R&B, and multiple strains of dance music from house to jungle. Damn straight it sounded great in the same circa-’01 CD changer as Basement Jaxx’s Rooty (which dropped a month later) and the self-titled masterpiece by her close friend Aaliyah. “Scream a.k.a. Itchin'” is one of a handful of Miss E cuts that plays fast and loose with drum’n’bass, a genre that seemed in danger of becoming increasingly over-technical and funkless at the turn of the millenium. It’s a little more jaggedly quirky and minimalist production-wise than your typical joint by, say, Photek; melodic accents are basically just super-truncated shards of synthesized noise with some low-key space-prog burbles under the chorus. And if that less-is-more approach sounds stark in contrast to d’n’b death-by-snares complexity, Missy’s beat-locked chop flow doubles up the rhythm with a detached coolness that makes her freaky tales sound nonchalantly raucous.
06. “Pass That Dutch” (From 2003’s This Is Not A Test!)
Missy deserves her due as a straight-up hip-hop lyricist, but she also works wonders when she just goes crazy on a feverish dance cut. “Pass That Dutch” is club-drug stimulated, riddled with ADD ad-libs, and run through with unrepentant absurdity to the point where an abrupt detour into an homage to De La Soul’s “Potholes in My Lawn” is maybe the fifth-silliest thing that happens in its 3 ½ minutes. (Other candidates: her characteristic “bump bump bump” onomatopoeia; the second verse ending on a gratefully accepted burst of applause; the “five seconds to catch your breath” interlude). The craziest thing about this whole manic party anthem might just be how easy it is to get wrapped back up in the beat, no matter how many times it’s cut off by interjections — it’s literally just jump-rope handclaps, the world’s faintest snare hit, and a whomm whomm whomm bassline. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.
05. “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee (Remix)” (1998 Single)
Some of Missy’s best tracks have her occupying a strange gray area between rapper and singer, a precedent that made itself known as early as her debut Supa Dupa Fly. She’s in both modes on “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” though not exactly simultaneously; singing on the chorus and the bridge while she rhymes on the verses is a common-enough occurrence in her discography that it’s almost easy to take for granted. But on the remix version — which features a superior beat, incidentally, all fast-forward guitar strums and bass you need a bread knife to slice through — she makes it sound like the versatile balancing act it really is. Her singing voice is nuanced and smooth, sustained notes flipping into sharp emphases that make the fiercely independent lyrics (“You’re not good enough to satisfy me/Even with your cars and all the fly whips, I won’t trip”) cut even deeper. That there’s both an icy snarl and a playful smirk to her voice when she starts rapping near the end makes it a transformative performance.
04. “One Minute Man” (From 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive)
Missy’s always good for a stark upending of sexual politics and a table-turning of objectification in pop music: getting down to her is a democratic pursuit, but getting down with her is a goal that a lot of lesser men will look foolish trying to meet. Anyone who wants to get with Misdemeanor has to be worth it to her from just about every imaginable angle, and through all the cartoonish vocal tics and delirious lyricism she can really make it crystal clear in no uncertain terms just how unattainable she is if you just consider her a subject to be conquered. She’ll have a man like that, sure — “Boy I’m’a make you love me, make you want me/And I’m’a give you some attention tonight” — but he better be able to keep up. It’s that blend of seduction and intimidation, the latter almost a challenge as it’s delivered in the hook (“Break me off, show me what’cha got/’Cause I don’t want no one minute man”), that gives “One Minute Man” its character. That, and Tim’s beat, squeaky enough to sound like a taunt but with enough low-end to sound like a promise. Go for the original, where Ludacris brings the over-the-top bravado; Jay-Z’s spot on the remix is a weird fit since he tries to make being too fast for love sound like a bragging point.
03. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (From 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly)
Or: Ann Peebles Goes to Saturn. Missy’s inside-out twist on Hi Records’ greatest moment (non-Al Green division) is the stuff of legend, even if some of that legend was initially lost on apprehensive, oddity-allergic hardheads. There is no way around the stoned absurdity of a line like “Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep, vroooooom” — a line sometimes, somehow, mistaken for a bad lyric instead of a lighthearted one, and yet it’s not just an offbeat non-sequitur. It’s the middle of a performance that’s a dazed stream of consciousness, one that makes perfect sense amidst the nonsense — think of it as the ’90s rap equivalent to one of those vintage Lee “Scratch” Perry dubplate ramblings, only with “I Can’t Stand The Rain” run through the chunkiest synth-bass since Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.”
02. “Work It” (From 2002’s Under Construction)
Joke after joke after filthy, delirious joke — in its pure, unedited form, “Work It” is one of the most quotable rap tracks of the ’00s, assuming you’ve got a tolerant, hard to shock crowd to quote it for. With a “Heart Of Glass” drum machine, deceptively primitive synth wriggles, and a handful of old-school flourishes (particularly the Run-DMC “Peter Piper” break), Missy rolls out the punchlines, innuendo, come-ons, and cartoon smut with masterful comic timing. “Go downtown and eat it like a vulture,” “Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster,” “Picture Lil’ Kim dating a pastor” — if you’ve heard “Work It” at least a couple times, you’ve doubtlessly registered those quotes in that staggered sing-song flow she attacks from every POV, including that memorably confounding backmasked bit (driving confused karaoke-goers on a wild goose chase to figure out what “fremme neppa venette” meant) and a few lines that take her thing for onomatopoeia to preposterous levels. And historic ones — how many people used the term “badonkadonk” before this dropped?
01. “Get Ur Freak On” (From 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive)
Ragga-bhangra-jungle in dizzying fast-forward, a paean to fucked-up dancing in three languages (Japanese, Hindi, hyper-evolved English), “Get Ur Freak On” is a top candidate for what a speculator in 1970 or 1982 or 1995 could envision as The Sound of 2001. That we’re 14 years past said date and this still sounds like a miracle of tomorrowworld is living proof that futurism and timelessness ride on the same track. Missy as MC is almost post-lyrical here, where Rakim’s definition of those initials standing for “Move the Crowd” is more than met even with a dearth of hot-on-paper quotables; as pure performance it’s enough to shame even the most scientific-lyrical-lyricist. She doubles-up that Eastern twang rhythmically and with beat-flipping counterpoints (“I know you dig the way I sw-sw-switch my style”), punching through everything with neck-snap interjections (“Holla!”; “Who’s that biiiiiitch?!”; “hock-ptoo”) and hitting every sweet and sour note in her repertoire. Crazy that knows it’s crazy has no need for complex language, at least not in words — the best communication here goes off what it makes your feet do.
Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.