What does Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott got that you ain’t got? I mean aside from a wardrobe made entirely of Hefty™ bags,1 a cowriter-producer who’s named for a hiking boot company and can’t blink without syncopating,2 a musical promiscuity matched by no one since Julio Iglesias,3 a delicious and bumptious second album called Da Real World,4 total artistic control over her own recording conglomerate,5 and a lipstick called “Misdemeanor” designed by herself and supermodel Iman?6 Nothing, really. But she works that nothing like nobody’s business.
1. Missy is so much a premillennial celebrity that there’s hardly room left over for a person within the persona. She’s often applauded for selling herself with crazy couture and muted sexuality, but that’s too much of a left-handed compliment. Why shouldn’t she have it all? Perhaps her cyber-
Labelle getups are a way of avoiding that question. It’s a principle I remember my brother demonstrating once years ago. He had to go to work hungover, so he wore an orange tie. Everyone talked about the tie, nobody
noticed the hangover. Missy’s new Hype Williams video has her looking like Divine dipped in tar and silver sparkles on the set of 2001. She must have some kinda love hangover, jack.
2. It’s clear that as a unit, Missy and Timbaland are a musical genius, especially if the flabby Tim’s Bio is any indication of Mr. Mosley’s current
Missy-free abilities. (Spiderman? What next, the theme from The Andy Griffith Show?) They are a genius of timing as well as artistry. They came along with Supa Dupa Fly in 1997, right when rap was at its most stagnant, repetitive, unoriginal, self-referential, and morbid (yet perversely popular, too), bringing rhythmic influences from Afro-pop to Björk and double-handedly breathing new life into the genre. (When I interviewed Timbaland, I asked him if he was a Björk fan, and he said “Hell yes!” like I’d asked him if he had a dick.) Popularity may be no indicator of quality, but Missy’s first jam made everyone wakedafucup and dig into their pockets— for record-buying cash instead of guns— to the tune of 15 million copies.
3. Missy has more guests on her albums than Oprah does on her show. That’s why they sound like parties rather than personal statements. Da Real World boasts cameos from Eminem, B.G., Nicole, Big Boi, Redman, Lady Saw, Aaliyah, Li’l Kim, Li’l Mo, Da Brat, Juvenile, and Beyonce of Destiny’s Child. Her producer credits start with her Blackground and Gold Mind empire and branch out toward dubious product like Scary Spice, Paula Cole, Mariah Carey, and I’m sorry but tacky-assed Whitney Houston. It’s unclear whether the girl cares who she associates with or is actually the nonjudgmental global earth mother cum profiteer such collaborations suggest. I mean, it isn’t that hard to imagine Missy kicking back on, like, Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee and calling them her niggaz without losing cred.
4. As you might expect, Da Real World takes more musical than lyrical risks. She and Timbaland layer enough beats and electronic percussion sounds together to confuse a tribe of Pygmies. Its helter-skelter syncopation gone buckwild makes it less accessible than Supa Dupa Fly, which relied heavily on soul influence for its musical content— hence the immensely popular Ann Peebles remake, “The Rain.” Like many a follow-up after a huge success, Da
Real World is bleaker than its predecessor. Instead of funk samples, Missy and Timbaland break out the Afrikaa Bambaataa symphonic synths and enter their romantic period like a black Merteuil and Valmont. He matches her complaints of betrayal, thievery, and defiance with self-important orchestral riffs and pounding bass. From the melodrama, you get the sense that the dynamic duo have got a masterpiece in them somewhere, along the lines of Songs in the Key of Life or It Takes a
Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. But to get there, Ms. Elliott and Mr. Mosley’s writing will have to get as revolutionary as their beats.
On Da Real World, Missy sticks to the School of Literalism. The wittiest thing she does is croon “Won’t you busa rhyme for me, boy?” to the tune of “Play That Funky Music” behind white boy Eminem’s “Busa Rhyme” rap. To her, attractive men are blandly just “Hot Boyz,” and the best self-
description she can muster is that she’s a “smooth chick, a cool chick.” “I got gats/So don’t make me use it” is “Smooth Chick” ‘s battle cry. “Smooth Chick” ‘s drum track, on the other hand, is as African-danceable as music gets this side of the Atlantic, yet M & T treat it like a throwaway, burying it two-thirds of the way into the CD. If it were 10 minutes longer and about Amadou Diallo, it’d be a Fela Kuti song. Lyrically, she may be exercising the West African kind of power that comes from holding back, speaking minimally and moving economically. That probably works pretty well in the street, but we’re talking about popular music here. Hit us with the goddamn hee already.
5. Word is that Missy backed off calling the album Bitch, after the first single, “She’s a Bitch.” It’s a stronger
title than Da Real World (what is that,
an all-black cinema vérité show on MTV?), but the decision makes
sense for two
reasons: (1) In our postMeredith Brooks world, declaring your bitchhood is like hanging a sign in the window of your new restaurant that says “the hippest place in town.” If you have to say it, well . . . (2) Missy is anything but a bitch. She puts up with too much crap from men to be a bitch. “Third time/I moved you in/Took you back in my life/I was a fool,” she laments on “All N My Grill.” Third time? Da real bitch would set a nigga’s house on fire after the second time. Plus, you can’t let that toiletmouth ‘ho Li’l Kim give a lecture on bitchology on your album and expect anyone to think you’re the bitch.
So what is Missy if not a bitch? She’s a fat black woman in control. And nothing succeeds in America like a fat black woman in control. Fat black women in control have come to symbolize the common sense of the nation (should it develop any). Look at Maya, Toni, Mahalia, Aretha, Jessye, Leontyne, Della, Martha, Latifah, Oprah, Star Jones. How about the sister who told Keanu what was what in The Matrix? Look at Joya’s motherfucking Fun School. We were all raised on the aphorisms of fat black women. Missy, with the entrepreneurial sense of Babyface, the self-promotional image-making savvy of Madonna, the straightforwardness of Garth Brooks, and . . .
6. . . .the lifestyle fascism of Martha Stewart, has already conquered the world. She could burp a rhyme— Lord knows she comes close sometimes— and to us mortals, it would sound like righteous thunder