I have been a hip-hop head as long as I can remember. OK, that is a lie. It goes back to when I was about 10 years old. My cousin had brought a piece of cardboard and a pair of fingerless gloves to Thanksgiving. After we ate our meal, we went out to my grandmother’s front porch, put the cardboard down, each donned a glove, and did our best impersonations of moves we had seen on Soul Train. How priceless a home video from this extravaganza would be today! This love continued to grow as I got older, from sneaking in under-age to see Sir Mix-A-Lot (a gig that erupted in a massive brawl) to learning how to do the Running Man, the Kid ‘n Play, and the Roger Rabbit. (Note: You have to be of a certain vintage to appreciate these dance moves. I tried to do the Roger Rabbit about a month ago after one too many gin and tonics, and my husband was about two seconds away from taking me to the emergency room).
My favorite artists were the perennial De La Soul, Tribe, Public Enemy, and, of course, LL Cool J. But what I would get most excited about was when there was a female MC. I owned every Salt ‘N’ Pepa album, blasted L’Trimm (“Cars That Go Boom”) when getting ready for the prom, and literally built a shrine to MC Lyte in my dorm room. I was that sad person sitting outside of the Wherehouse record store on street date, waiting for them to open, so I could buy the cassette (you read that correctly) of Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen. So, you can only imagine my insane happiness upon first hearing “The Rain”off of Missy Elliott’s 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly.
This was a moment when low-rise jeans and oversexualized teenage bubble gum pop — think early “Oops! … I Did It Again” Britney — ruled the charts. Women in music across all genres seemed to be either eye candy (see Britney) gyrating around in videos with barely any clothes or super woman bands, like the Lilith Fair stuff — acts that were marketed towards females (I remember going to that festival for work and being handed a “goodie bag” upon entry containing a Biore strip and a tampon). There seemed to be few to zero women creating interesting music, being artists, and daring to be cool and weird and statement makers without their vaginas being the most talked-about element of their output.
Then comes Missy. The song may have been slinky and funky, but Missy — donning a variety of brightly colored parkas and even what looks like a garbage bag in the video — just did not give a f*** about being cute or desirable in the traditional Dawson’s Creek sort of way. She was cool and just as talented as her male counterparts, even facing off with Puff in a scene. I wanted to be Missy, all confidence, casual swagger, and bomb-ass rapper. Where had she been my whole life?
I had to wait to have that questioned answered until she put out her third record, the infectious classic Miss E … So Addictive (2001), which followed 1999’s Da Real World. Missy’s production partner, Timbaland, was at the controls again, and the tracklisting was a who’s who of hip-hop royalty, including Jay-Z, Method Man, Redman, Ludacris, Tweet, and the extremely underrated Eve. But no matter who she shared the cut with, Missy was incandescent, her flow, lyrics, and reference points astute, funny, and poignant while being incredibly catchy. Whether refusing to have a poorly performing partner in “One Minute Man” to telling a date how to treat her right in hip-shaker “Old School Joint” to demanding for one to “Get Ur Freak On,” Missy was a truth speaker, boldly addressing the life of the everywoman while being untouchably the most naturally chic human to ever to grace the mic. The video for “Freak” is what would become trademark Elliott, a banquet of technicolor pop culture come to life. As she walks through a zombie forest, Missy wears a variety of matching pantsuits and huge earrings, morphing at one point into a long-necked Cheshire Cat-like creature. Even among ripped dancers and belly-bearing extras, it is Elliott who is the sexy one looking straight into the camera with unerring chutzpah.
At this point, Missy seemed to be on a creative roll. Two back-to-back LPs came out, each building on the foundation of the untouchable couplets and head-bobbing goodness of the predecessors. First was 2002’s Under Construction, which saw Missy again bringing in high-caliber guests, including return appearances by Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Method Man. Beyoncé adds a call-and-response mid-tempo jam to “Nothing Out There for Me” as Missy encourages her to dump a no-good beau. The obvious jewel of the album is the then-inescapable (but strangely never-sick-of) “Work It.”
Just as the listeners around the world were catching their breath from that incredible outing, a year later, This Is Not a Test! dropped. While this album received slightly less rave reviews than other Elliott offers, in many ways, it is the most interesting and insightful of her LPs. The “big” single, “Pass That Dutch,” is just as fun to fill a dance floor to as previous Missy rump-shakers, but it does not have the same indelible classic vibe that was immediate in other mega-hits from Elliott. On previous records, the big single was big; like one of those engagement rings that super-rich people have, the other tracks were studded around a humongous earworm. This was not the case on Test. “Pass That Dutch” is as fun, both in catchy hop-scotching choruses and eye-popping music video, but it begins with a serious soliloquy as Elliott pays tribute to fallen icons (Biggie, 2Pac, etc.) and contemplates the state of both the music she loves and the community she is a part of. It is a stark contrast from the seemingly always fun-loving Missy. But this reflection continues throughout Test, providing a 360 on the realities of being a Black woman at the turn of the 21st century without apology or a sugar coating. The third track, the raw “Wake Up” featuring Jay-Z, is a mirror (filled with pop-culture shorthand) held to the Black community:
Hip-hop better wake up, the bed to make ups
Some of y’all be faker than a drag on make-up
Got issues to take up, before we break up.
One of the many unique and awesome things about Missy is that she is never a victim. She may get frustrated, she may be contemplative, but she always finds a solution or the lighter side. She is self-reliant and strong, but not in a hammering-it-in-your-face kind of way. Missy just is. She is effortless.
This is never more apparent than in her self-love anthem, “Toyz.” Sure, she is annoyed that her lover can’t hit the spot, but hey. Missy isn’t dependant on anyone:
You don’t get the job done when I need a little loving
So I gotta do it myself if I wanna feel something
So I grab me a toy, ‘lil boo ain’t buggin’N
Now I want some affection and you ain’t giving me nothin’.
Another of Missy’s best attributes (there are really too many for this short of an article!) is, even amidst a look at social commentary and taboo topics, she still can let it rip and have fun. She isn’t always serious, as “Let it Bump,” “Fix My Weave,” and “Spelling Bee” all illustrate.
How could she top this album? Well, of course by putting out The Cookbook in 2005 with the irresistible “Lose Control.” Cookbook sees Missy go back to her template of one insanely contagious track with smaller glories packed in around it. Just a year later, her greatest hits collection, Respect M.E., came out.
Then nothing. Had Missy gone forever? Really, what else could she do? How do you top perfection?
Almost a soul-wrenching decade later, the single “WTF (Where They From)” with Pharrell Williams dropped. The wait had been worth it, the track being one of the most contagious tunes of the century. The video went beyond anything Elliott had done before, featuring the artist dressed as literal pieces of pop art. As inspired as the song was, it only made fans remember how much they were missing Missy.
When her EP Iconology finally came out in 2019, it was a relief. Missy was still making art! Lead single “Throw It Back” was a bit flat and literally one note, which was a horrible disappointment after such a rabid wait. The following two cuts, “Why I Still Love You,” and “DripDemeanor,” show that Elliott can croon on a slow jam (the former) and rhyme just a smooth on a bump-and-grind mid-tempo track (the latter) as she can on her classic songs. But none of these had that special Missy sparkle, the wit, the humor, the honesty. They were a bit generic. I listened because I love Missy, not because they are brilliant tunes.
The final cut, “Cool Off,” however, is both an homage to hip-hop’s past while being firmly placed in current trends. Missy again shows why she is the thinking person’s artist. Her video takes place in a museum with various references to specific art movements widely sprinkled throughout.
Like a treasure in the hallowed halls of such establishments, Missy is one of a kind, precious, and totally inspiring. We need her music, her style, and her flavor now more than ever. You could easily say that she paved the way for the Nicki Minaj’s of the world, but then you would be missing the subtle yet calculated singularity of Elliott. Never has her sexuality, gender, or personal life been the lead attraction. It has always been her unparalleled honesty, talent, and ability to cross every sort of divide — from race to fine art to fashion — that sets her completely apart from other artists. It has never been “Look at me!” in a Lady Gaga sort of way. She has always been a complicated bricolage of society, much like the cut-and-mix nature of hip-hop itself.
Missy Elliott’s Most Popular Albums
This list is determined by two things: how many Discogs users have the album in their collection plus how many Discogs users want to add it to their collection. While we focused on full-length studio albums, it’s worth noting that the Work It and Get Ur Freak On singles are in a lot of record collections across the world.
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