An examination of the innovations Missy Elliott made to music and culture throughout her career.
“Risk-Taking.” “Unexpected.” “Out-of-the-box.” “Extraterrestrial.” These are a few of the words mentioned when people are asked to describe the one-and-only Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. After becoming the first female rapper, and the second rapper ever after Jay-Z, inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on January 12th, now is as good of a time as ever to look back on the countless innovations Missy Elliott made to music and culture throughout her career.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame is the perfect honor for Missy E. Not only has she written and produced hits for herself, but also Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, 702, Monica, Tweet, NSync and Whitney Houston, to name a few. It was as a writer/producer, in fact, where Missy got her start. In 1993, she helped pen Raven-Symoné’s 1993 debut single, "That's What Little Girls Are Made Of,” followed by Jodeci’s 1995 album The Show, the After Party, the Hotel. In 1996, she contributed writing and production for nine of the songs on Aaliyah's double platinum album, One in a Million.
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1996 was the turning point for Missy Elliott’s rap career. Linking with P. Diddy for his remix of Gina Thompson’s “The Things That You Do,” Missy established herself as a one-of-a-kind rapper with a show-stopping “HEE-HEE-HEE-HEE-HOW” in the middle of her verse. This breakout track lead to a deal with Elektra Records, who released her debut album Supa Dupa Fly in 1997.
“We made history,” Timbaland said about Supa Dupa Fly. “We came in and shifted the tempo, and the bounce.” As the album’s sole producer, Timbaland worked closely with Missy to craft a bold, experimental, and unquestionably funky sound unlike anything else at the time. In ‘97, hip hop was going through a momentary identity crisis, after two of its biggest stars, Biggie and Tupac, had been murdered within months of each other. “Aggressive” gangsta rap and “intellectual” conscious rap were the two most popular genres, and neither were particularly carefree or humorous. Enter Missy E, with a fresh style that was fun, creative, and didn’t take itself too seriously.
Nothing represents Supa Dupa Fly’s aesthetic better than the Hype Williams-directed video for “The Rain.” Opening with a fish-eye camera shot of Missy wearing a giant inflatable garbage bag and red sunglasses that extend into a glittering space helmet, “The Rain” video was a futuristic, mind-bending odyssey. “At the time, everybody was in their little bathing suits,” Missy said on Sway in the Morning. “Then you had this big girl coming in wearing a trash bag.” Literally walking to a nearby gas station to pump it up, her Michelin Man-style garbage bag suit goes down as one of the most legendary fashion statements in hip-hop history.
Missy Elliot - The Rain
For her second album, 1999’s Da Real World, Missy raised the bar once again with an even more futuristic sound and look. The video for the album’s single “She’s a B*tch,” also directed by the legendary Hype Williams, featured Missy donning an all-black leather superhero suit, head completely shaven, and surrounded by $2 million dollar Electro Luminescent lights flown in from Germany. Produced by Timbaland once again, the song’s eerie strings are paired with the signature conga rolls, shakers and breathing that became Missy’s trademark. Lyrically, the song is a powerful reclamation of the word “b*tch,” taking it and throwing it back at you with full force. In hindsight, the industrial, robotic aesthetic of Da Real World was a clear influence on recent albums like Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory and A$AP Rocky’s Testing.
Keeping up her hot streak, Missy Elliott dropped yet another classic album with 2001’s Miss E… So Addictive. More explicitly sexual than her previous work, So Addictive featured the single “One Minute Man,” a revolutionary track in which Missy sets the ground rules for what she will and will not tolerate in the bedroom. With the infectious hook “Break me off, show me what you got / Cause I don't want, no one-minute man,” she made one of her most empowering statements yet for women everywhere. And of course, also on this album was the one-and-only “Get Ur Freak On.” Sampling a tabla and tumbi-driven Punjabi melody, Timbaland’s one-of-a-kind beat served as the perfect backdrop for Missy to come in swinging with her incredible flow. To this day, this beat can go off in a club and every person in there will start screaming those lyrics.
2002 saw another win for Missy Elliott with her album Under Construction. Hit singles “Gossip Folks” and “Work It” were prime examples of her innovative left-field style. On “Work It,” Missy raps in reverse, interrupts her lines with a literal elephant trumpet noise, and single-handedly popularized the term “badonkadonk.” Lyrics like “Go downtown and eat it like a vulture / See my hips and my tips, don't ya?” flip the script on male rappers talking about sex, making it clear who’s in charge. “Gossip Folks,” meanwhile, was one of Missy’s straight-up funniest songs yet, sampling the 1981 funk-rap song “Double Dutch Bus” for the hook (copied exactly from Genius) – “Millze cillzan sillzome plilzay dilzzouble dilzutch! / Hilzzoo? / My gizzirl! / Brillzing her izzin!” The Under Construction era proved once and for all that Missy can be just as hard and aggressive as any other rapper, while still retaining her sense of humor.
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The videos for “Work It” and “Gossip Folks” cemented Missy E’s status as not only an incredible rapper, singer and actress, but also as a highly skilled dancer. Watching Missy lead a group dance routine dressed in an Adidas tracksuit within a high school hallway for the “Gossip Folks” video, it’s clear that choreography is as much a part of her artistic vision as sonics, visuals and costuming. “Usually I’ll come into rehearsal and be like, ‘So this is what it is, this is what we’re doing,’” choreographer Sean Bankhead explained. “And everybody’s like, ‘Okay. Cool. Great.’ Missy, she’s like, ‘Nah.’ She’s like, ‘You can do better. Let’s change that. Let’s change that section right there. Let’s put that part on the ground. Move that section to the top.’ She’s very vocal, and she really pushes you to be great.
2005’s The Cookbook, Missy Elliott’s last album before taking a health-related hiatus, featured the bombshell of a single “Lose Control,” featuring Ciara and Fat Man Scoop. Over an absolutely explosive beat, Fat Man Scoop shouts out “MUSIC MAKE YOU LOSE CONTROL,” while Missy drops an unforgettable intro bar – “Got a cute face / chubby waist / thick legs, in shape.” Long before ‘body positivity’ was a phrase commonly used, Missy was highly vocal about being confident in her body and not changing it to meet unrealistic beauty standards. “I’m gonna stay my size and have a big record, and that’s that,” she said in her VH1 Behind the Music special.
In an industry where image is everything, Missy’s determination to stay true to herself had a massive impact on girls around the world. Not only that, but she paved the way the whole next generation of rappers, female and male, to be as weird, wild and themselves as they wanted. “It's music that makes you feel good,” Lady Leshurr said about Missy E, “It takes you back to a time when music was all about having fun, being playful and getting creative.” Janelle Monae, who Missy has shouted out on Twitter several times, carries on the futuristic aesthetic of albums like Da Real World and Miss E… So Addictive with her own ArchAndroid and Dirty Computer concept albums. Princess Nokia paid homage to her idol in her breakout single “Tomboy,” with the lines “Missy Elliott, can't stand the rain / You lames playin' the same games.” And perhaps the rapper who embodies Missy E’s legacy most of all is Brooklyn-bred Leikeli47, who spits with effortless savvy and humor across multiple styles and genres.
This article only scratches the surface of the impact Missy Elliott has had on music and culture. Consistently featuring contemporaries like Lil’ Kim, Aaliyah, Trina, Da Brat, Left Eye and 702 on her songs and videos, Missy showed the world what women in hip-hop can accomplish. But much more than that, her out-of-the-box creativity and boundary-pushing style proved that you can be as weird and unique as you want, and still be one of the hardest rappers out there. Missy’s determination to stay true to herself and constantly break new ground as an artist makes her one of the greatest to have ever done it.