It’s the summer of 1997. I’m crashed out at a friend’s house, waiting out the three days between sessions at the summer camp where I work. His family’s got me sleeping on the couch in the TV room, which works just fine for me. Whenever I can’t sleep, I watch MTV. I watch so much MTV. And at four or five one morning, I see a woman wearing hoop earrings and a helmet-goggles thing and this giant black shiny trash bag. She’s rap-singing a song that’s all gooey simplistic poetry over plink-plink noises, and none of it seems real. I briefly wonder if I’m hallucinating. But no: It turns out that I’m witnessing the birth of a phenomenon. I’m watching the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” It’s the first-ever music video from Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, and there will be many more. Over the next six years or so, she will define herself as one of the greatest music-video artists of all time.
A whole generation will never know what it feels like to get holy-shit excited at the release of a new Missy Elliott video. That feeling, when you’ve got BET on in the background and you’re bullshitting with friends and then you catch the video for “Gossip Folks” or “Beep Me 911″ for the first time and all conversation suddenly ceases — there’s nothing like it today. To see these vivid, surreal, funny images on an actual cable channel in daytime, it was like we were catching quick glimpses of a different, and better, universe. Last week, Missy released her new “WTF (Where They From)” video, and it was cause for celebration — partly because it was great, and partly because it fit seamlessly into her small-but-impeccable videography. So in celebration of “WTF” and of Elliott’s entire career, here’s our list of Elliott’s 10 best music videos. (These are only Missy Elliott-as-a-solo-artist videos, so sorry to Timbaland & Magoo’s “Here We Come” and Memphis Bleak’s “Is That Yo Chick” and all the other great videos that Elliott blessed with her presence.)
10. “WTF (Where They From)” (Feat. Pharrell Williams) (Dir. Missy Elliott & Dave Meyers)
This is such a fun, amazing, energetic video that it feels insulting to put it way down here at #10. But just keep in mind that this means I’m ranking it above “I’m Really Hot” and “Take Away” and “Hit Em Wit Da Hee.” None of that was easy. But the disco-ball jumpsuit, the Pharrell marionette, and the bodies-in-boxes dance party all ensure that respect must be paid.
9. “Pass That Dutch”(Dir. Dave Meyers)
Missy and her friends are rednecks dancing in cornfields while UFOs buzz overhead. She’s a beauty queen tearfully waving a crowd of literal Barbie dolls. She and her friends pull a man into their jeep, eat him, and leave his bloody bones lying on the sidewalk outside. By 2003, this wasn’t even an especially outrageous Missy video.
8. “Sock It 2 Me” (Feat. Da Brat) (Dir. Hype Williams)
Missy’s second single was a song about fucking. So naturally, in the video, she dressed up like Megaman, and she, Lil Kim, and Da Brat fought angry bad-CGI robots. Timbaland dresses like one of the mad scientists from Mystery Science Theater 3000. This one would probably rank higher if not for Williams’ insufferable need to throw explosion sound effects into all his videos.
7. “Gossip Folks” (Feat. Ludacris) (Dir. Dave Meyers)
Missy stages massive Adidas-sweatsuit high-school dance throwdowns. The should’ve-been-huge Ms. Jade almost steals the video with her “Funky Fresh Dressed” interlude. Ludacris, playing a sharkskin-suited principal who punches out dudes on the playground for no reason, actually does steal the video. DMC is the busdriver, naturally.
6. “Beep Me 911″ (Feat. 702 & Magoo) (Dir. Earle Sebastian)
Maybe the greatest-ever example of Missy’s logic-defying robot dancing. Either she was the best dancer ever or her directors figured out ways to slow down and speed up film to make it look that way. Or both! In this one, she’s unsettlingly made up to look like a plastic doll, as is her pole-dancing crew. Magoo, for whatever reason, wears a pompadour wig and a pink velvet tuxedo, and he still looks like the most normal person in the video.
5. “One Minute Man” (Feat. Ludacris & Trina) (Dir. Dave Meyers)
Missy does wire-fu in a hotel room, and she also rips off her own head as a seduction tool. (The anonymous handsome video dude seems confused but down.) Ludacris rocks comatose women to sleep in a gigantic Lewis Carroll nursery. Trina crawls around a room full of clocks and hourglasses. On the walls, human statues dance.
4. “She’s A Bitch” (Dir. Hype Williams)
A live-action anime Tron remake, as directed by late-’70s Ridley Scott and styled by early-’70s John Waters. The bit where Missy comes out of the water is one of the defining moments of late-’90s cinema.
3. “Get Ur Freak On” (Dir. Dave Meyers)
This video marked the moment all your (well, my) goofy indie-rock friends had to stop acting like Missy Elliott was some R&B flash-in-the-pan and had to acknowledge that we were dealing with a pop-art genius. Here we had Missy, in a Motörhead shirt and paisley jeans, hanging out in a swamp, with albino demons. We had her spitting a CGI loogie into a backup dancer’s mouth. We had Timbaland playing air-tablas. We had Eve doing this perfect little head-swivel/sneer thing that had me in love with her for years. We had Missy’s neck stretching out to cartoon-snake lengths. None of it made sense. All of it was perfect.
2. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (Dir. Hype Williams)
The garbage-bag Michelin Man suit is still the single most defining image of Missy. But the very same video has the who-got-the-keys-to-the-Jeep scene — maybe the greatest-ever use of fisheye lens in rap-video history — and that scene of Missy on the hilltop, staring off into nothingness. This was a music video that worked as a statement of intent, an immediate reshaping of everything you thought you knew about rap-video imagery. And it’s still not her best video.
1. “Work It” (Dir. Missy Elliott & Dave Meyers)
The beard of bees? The Halle Berry cameo? The introduction of adorable dancing white girl and future Step Up 3 star Allyson Stoner? The Terminator 2 apocalyptic playground? The fact that the white boys on the “boys boys all type of boys” bit are gutter punks and the Chinese boys are Strokes-styled hipsters? The saluting soldier doing the “give you some some some of this Cinnabon” bit? The part where Missy swallows a car? The part where Missy holds a handful of pubes out to the camera? Forget it. It’s perfect.