The Anniversary

Under Construction Turns 20

Goldmind/Elektra
2002
Goldmind/Elektra
2002

Missy Elliott’s biggest hit opens with Timbaland scratching up the intro from “Request Line,” a breezy electro-rap single that Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three released in 1984. When that sample drops out, another sample comes in: The bubbling intro from Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” paired with an eerie synth-whistle. Within a few seconds, Missy Elliott makes a demand: If you got a big dick, let her search ya and find out how hard she gotta work ya. But we never hear the word “dick”; instead, we get a sudden elephant trumpet-blast. From there, things get even sillier.

“Work It” is a goony masterpiece of absurdity, a burst of horny gibberish that never loses its sense of euphoric hilarity. Missy’s voice zooms forwards and backwards over the spare, elegant beat. She has instructions: Call before you come so that she can shave her chocha, then go downtown and eat it like a vulture. She rhymes “Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” with “sex me so good I say blah blah blah.” She rhapsodizes about the way her ass goes ba-bum-bum-bum-bum. It’s meaningless, and it’s beautiful.

When you factor in the “Work It” video, an all-time classic of the form, things get even more ridiculous. Missy makes her entrance sliding across an apocalyptic playground, after we’ve already seen her seated behind turntables and covered in bees. She holds a giant handful of pubes out to the camera and then blows those pubes in our direction. Her face appears on the body of a little kid in a dunce cap. A saluting military figure, flag and drummer behind him, solemnly intones the line “give you some some some some of this Cinnabun.” We’re in ecstatic cartoon Bugs Bunny unreality here, and that unreality looks a whole lot better than any version of reality.

“Work It,” song and video, is a burst of joyous insanity that came out of heartbreak and uncertainty. Missy Elliott was pop music’s reigning futurist long before she came out with “Work It.” In 2001, she released Miss E… So Addictive, an album of wildly imaginative sci-fi club music. Then, a few months later, Aaliyah died in a plane crash. In 1996, when the behind-the-scenes duo of Missy Elliott and Timbaland were still establishing their sound, the teenage R&B star Aaliyah recognized what they were doing and went to work with them. For the next five years, Aaliyah recorded classic after classic with Missy and Timbaland, and she helped put them into a position where they could become pop stars themselves. Aaliyah’s sudden, senseless loss hit Missy hard, and it affected her trajectory in ways that weren’t immediately apparent.

Missy Elliott’s fourth album Under Construction, which will turn 20 years old tomorrow, doesn’t open with music. Instead, it starts off with Missy speaking, unscripted and unaccompanied, about what it’s like to process that loss: “You know, ever since Aaliyah passed, I view life in a more valuable way.” When Missy changed her outlook, she realized that she didn’t like where rap music was going. There was too much beef, too much gossip, too much hateration. People were making music for clout, not for the sheer joy of creativity. In that intro, Missy scolds her peers, citing an example that would age in some very strange ways: “You don’t see Bill Gates and Donald Trump arguing with each other ’cause both of them got paper, and they got better shit to do.” If only.

On Under Construction, Missy attempted a kind of cultural reset. Rather than pushing rap and R&B into bold new futures, as she’d done on her previous three albums, she tried to bring everything back to the feeling of the old-school rap that she’s always loved. But Missy wasn’t capable of pure nostalgic pastiche; she wasn’t trying to go Jurassic 5 on everyone. Instead, Missy, Timbaland, and their all-star cast of collaborators invested their ’80s and ’90s reference points with the berserk, idiosyncratic spirit that already animated so much of their work. The result was the biggest and, for my money, the best album that Missy Elliott has ever made.

Often, pop-music nostalgia can be a force for stylistic conservatism, a desperate backlash against progress. But Missy and Timbaland couldn’t take things backwards if they tried — unless we’re talking about taking things literally backwards, as Missy so often does with her own Under Construction vocals. Instead, Missy and Tim took inspiration from rap’s early no-rules ethos. When samples crop up on Under Construction — the Bob James “Take Me To The Mardi-Gras” break on “Work It,” the backwards drum-machines of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” on “Funky Fresh Dressed” — you can hear how close those records always were to Timbaland’s own spacey boom. Missy and Tim were drawing connections, and they were having fun doing it.

That sense of fun is the most important thing about Under Construction. In one interstitial skit, Missy says, “You may not feel like I’m a real hip-hop artist.” She didn’t sound too anxious about it. Instead of trying to test herself against the example of historical heroes like Rakim, Missy spoke her own sugar-rush nonsense language. She didn’t stress over whether her words really rhymed, or whether they were even words. Instead, she brought a gorgeously deranged energy to the music that she loved. She sang along with basslines. She rhapsodized about British Knights and gold chains. She let us know that her attitude was bitchy because her period was heavy. She rapped about sex a lot. She connected with the things, musical and otherwise, that made her happy. It’s hard to imagine a healthier response to tragedy.

Even when Missy talks shit on Under Construction, she sounds like she’s having a blast: “I know y’all poor, y’all broke! Y’all job just hanging up coats!” The later R&B tracks — the ones that Missy recorded without her usual co-producer Timbaland — don’t slow the party down too much; they just change it up. “Pussycat” is breezy, addictive plastic soul, and it’s got Missy repeatedly pleading for her pussy to not fail her now. “Nothing Out There For Me” now plays as fascinating psychodrama: Missy pleading with her friend Beyoncé to come out and meet her at the club, Beyoncé begging off and saying that she loves her man too much and that she’s not going to meet anyone better on any night out. (Missy: “Beyoncé, I know you ain’t letting that broke down, insecure LL Cool J wannabe n***a keep you in the house for another Friday.” A rich text!) The one moment where the party really ends is the sincere, bottomlessly sad closing track “Can You Hear Me” — Missy, T-Boz, and Chilli singing fond farewells to their late friends and collaborators Aaliyah and Left Eye.

Nobody in pop history uses guests better than Missy Elliott. On “Back In The Day,” for instance, Missy brings in Jay-Z, the coolest man in rap, to dork out about old favorites. (Jay says that he and Missy are like “Rae and Ghost, AG and Showbiz.”) Ludacris arrives on “Gossip Folks” in peak guest-verse assassin form, flipping Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” to bellow out his own narrative. Ms. Jade, Missy and Timbaland’s newly recruited Philly rap protege, rips “Funky Fresh Dressed” to pieces; I’ll never understand why she didn’t become a huge star. In one of the album’s more beautifully baffling decisions, Missy adapts Method Man’s “Bring The Pain” into a sex song, with Meth himself snarling about “we can bump uglies if you ain’t got your monthly.”

That revised “Bring The Pain” is probably a terrible idea, but its ridiculousness is what makes it great. How could you be mad at a song that insane? How could you ever skip it? There are no skips on Under Construction. Every song has something worth hearing: the rubbery pulse of “Slide,” the regal disdain and itchy synth-streaks of “Hot,” the scattered drum-splats of “Go To The Floor.” Every song has personality, and every song has hooks.

Under Construction was a magic trick: Missy Elliott and Timbaland calling back to an earlier rap era with fondness but no bitterness, making old tracks sound new. (Nostalgia is funny; the old songs that they reference on Under Construction weren’t as old as Under Construction is now.) This was Missy and Tim at their peak. By looking backwards, Missy and Tim propelled themselves even further into the mainstream. Under Construction went double platinum, selling more than any other Missy album.” Work It” spent 10 weeks at #2, stuck behind Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and tying Foreigner’s record for the longest stretch at the runner-up spot.

Missy would never recapture that almost-dominance again. A year later, Missy released her rushed follow-up This Is Not A Test! — a fun album with a couple of big hits that didn’t come close to the highs of Under Construction. After that, Missy and Timbaland’s creative partnership splintered. Missy made one more album, 2005’s pretty-good The Cookbook, and she still hasn’t followed it up.

At this point, Missy Elliott is widely recognized as a pioneering genius, a one of one. Critics love her. Fans love her. She’s got a Vanguard Award. She rapped “Work It” with Katy Perry at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Her greatness is understood, and I still think she could return with more bugged-out brilliance anytime she feels sufficiently inspired. But Under Construction will always stand out as a special achievement, a monument to joy in the face of sadness.

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