Used to be that being underground meant you had taste. All the beautiful people were getting freaky and high to that mundane mainstream stuff, but when you got home to your messy bedroom, stepping lightly through the cassettes, Star Wars toys, and classic Nikes, that rare Brazilian funk 45 screaming from the 1200 perched on your dresser told you exactly what was real.
These days, being underground is more intangible, like being inaccessible, ahistorical, and undanceable. Or maybe it’s more solid, like not being able to afford a pair of Dunks or a sample clearance, knowing that the midnight shift is stealing your demo time and you have ass-chance of getting signed anyway. That’s because mainstream is now being a body-positive black woman in black leather and boots staring out from a safari wicker chair like you’re bulletproof, exposing the slightest hint of leg, flanked by Afroed sistas straight out of a Baruch and Jones print, and knowing exactly what it means to be able to pull that shit off. Mainstream is doing all of this and still calling yourself a bitch, maybe less defensively than you used to, because by now Missy Elliott knows how much we all luv 2 luv her.
The songs remain the same: Timbaland as King Tubby, space and texture, timbral lands; Missy as Augustus Pablo, precise and succinct, bursting into surprising harmonies. The blueprint continues: imported Jamaican riddim engines nitrous-boosted and turbocharged with American know-how—Dave Kelly bugle beats and mentasmic bass on the bottom, Robie, Prince, Bootsy, Lenky, and Andraé Crouch over the top. When the underground and mainstream switched places in the late ’90s, Missy and Tim found that sweet spot right in the middle, where the hopelessly funky met the aggressively swanky, the cerebral and obscure went public, and the private became popular pleasure.
Connoisseurs love Missy because she has taste. Missy and Elephant Man over a vintage Wutangish beat on “Keep It Movin’ “? K-Solo versus Royal House on “Spelling Bee”? Get the fuck out! She rocks Shanté’s “Have a Nice Day,” Lyte’s Sam stories, and Schoolly’s “P.S.K.” on “Let It Bump,” while Timba’s bomp-bomp sends Benzino and Young Gunz scurrying back to their labs. She out-crunks the dirrrty boyz on “Let Me Fix My Weave,” and out-Vanitys Britney on “I’m Really Hot.” The people love her because she stays entertaining as H-E-L-L. Who else is gonna say “Fuck a tummy tuck”? Forget Shawn Carter’s farewell party, Missy cops the line of the year: “You would think I was Suge when I come out.”
Now she’s off the E, focused on doing Missy, which makes “Toyz” the feel-good highlight of the album in more ways than one. Back from the post-Aaliyah retreat into the nostalgia of Under Construction, she’s concluded life is about evolution, not revolution. That’s why she still lets Fabolous and Nelly ride, two hit-and-run young ‘uns who don’t know yet how to leave ’em satisfied. It’s also why she clips Mary—”But first you gotta . . . “—like she’s Scratch and Mary is Leroy Heptones praying to be released. Under Construction‘s between-song patter about change and maturity edges toward something like politics on This Is Not a Test! But there’s no great leap forward—or backward, depending on your theory of pop—of any sort here. This is not Missy’s 1999, let alone her What’s Going On.
Whether or not she wants to go there, first she’s gotta do something like “I’m Not Perfect,” which gives 50 Cent something from the Clark Sisters he’s gotta feel: In every thug, there’s a hug. “Wake Up” takes cues in surprising new ways from Elephant Man’s “Signal Di Plane,” his “no more war” cry disguised as the latest dance style. What’s new is Missy’s explicit class solidarity, which, when she has Shawn Carter talking the gotta-sleep-in-my-car blues, sounds closer to the Coup’s party music than the rap elite’s velvet-rope populism. What’s surprising is how she’s leveraged market share to stake a moral position. “Stop the beef, let’s sell,” she demands. Zino, Em, holla.
Is Missy poised to be the female Bambaataa? Mama’s growing out of the matrix. Hip-hop needs its all-seeking, all-knowing Third Eye back, along with the depth perception the limelight dissolves and some of the refinement that taste brings. Missy started out in gumball space suits, floating above the self-appointed gatekeepers of the real in both the underground and the mainstream. Now that she’s back on the ground, smack-dab in the middle, maybe she’s The One to open up those iron gates. Could be that all we need is a dance we’ve never seen before. Oh pass that dutch, baby.