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Missy Elliott Works It

by Matthew Webber

Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra)

When I compiled my list of my favorite singles of 2001, Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" was the only contender for Number One. Timbaland's sick beat and Missy's sinsongy rapping sounded like nothing else I heard on the radio last year, with the exception of Missy's other hit single, "One Minute Man." The song sounded exactly how I thought the music of 2001 would sound when I was five years old, back when all I knew of the new millennium was what I had seen in science fiction.

Missy's 2001 album, Miss E So Addictive, was truly a space odyssey, blipping and bleeping like Rosie, the Jetsons' robot maid. It didn't matter that much of what Missy spewed was nonsense: sound effects, jokes, and other random syllables, with the occasional complete sentence dropped into a verse. What mattered was how fresh it sounded, how unpredictably out of this world. Miss E proved to be as addictive as advertised.

However, like any good drug pusher, Missy was only giving us a taste. She was hooking us with the small stuff to hit us with something bigger. I only had to hear "Work It," the first single from her 2002 album, Under Construction, one time before I was hooked. I needed to cop the album, and I only had to listen to it once before I craved it. Since I don't take drugs, an album such as this is the highest I can fly.

I didn't think it possible for Missy to surpass the intergalactic planetariness of Miss E, but Under Construction is some galaxy-crossing shit. Once again, Timbaland saved his spaciest beats for Missy, who has never been afraid of sounding like nobody else in this world. We've all heard "Work It," by now, the only rap song I can recall with one, let alone all three, of the following: backwards lyrics, an elephant in the chorus, and onomatopoeias galore. It's the rap song the Beatles would have made in 1966, if only they had hailed from the Bronx instead of Liverpool.

The drum break at the end of "Work It" previews the rest of Under Construction. It's an old school sample in a new school context, sounding both ancient and like something you'd imagine tomorrow. Although I, and I think many others, have always thought of Missy as somewhat of a futuristic hip hop artist; her sense of humor, storytelling, and sexual politics link her to the late 1980s golden age of rap, a history to which Missy herself pays homage in Under Construction's songs ("Back in the Day," a re-working of Method Man's "Bring the Pain"), skits, and photos.

Like many of her old school influences, Missy wants us to dance. In one of her between-song speeches, Missy says that "this" - and by "this" she means her music and her dancing - "is hip hop, man. This is hip hop," and she's right. Hip hop used to be creative and fun. You used to be able to dance to it. Although Missy doesn't diss any of her current peers, I can't help but fault the rappers of today who would rather talk somewhat rhythmically about sipping Cristal than actually rock a crowd, the rappers whose inertia belongs in a parallel universe but instead inhabits your local hip hop radio station.

Missy, however, raps for your feet and head. She cracks you up like a comedian. She expresses her womanly wants and needs like a second wave feminist. She's still dropping gibberish, but she drops it like a scientist. Timbaland, meanwhile, produces like an alchemist, turning vinyl into gold.

By 2002, we were supposed to be able to travel through time. Thankfully for us, the fact that we cannot does not prevent Missy (and Timbaland) from trying. Like the ghost of Christmas hip hop, Missy shows us the past and leads us into the future. And somehow, she sounds as current as anyone.

The scariest thing is that Missy can only get better. In the album's intro, she explains that she chose Under Construction as a title because hip hop and she are still works in progress. In the future, perhaps in outer space, subsequent Missy Elliott albums might sound as current as Revolver and Rubber Soul sound to us, here on Earth, today.

E-mail me your questions, comments, and suggestions at popculturejunkie@hotmail.com.

Issue 12, January 2003 | next article


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