The Genius of Missy Elliott, a Pop Visionary Transmitting From the Future
Music is still catching up to where Missy Elliott stood 20 years ago. Now, with a new EP and a long overdue MTV Video Vanguard Award, she’s taking the victory lap she deserves.
She’s an icon who reshaped the sound of popular music in ways we still feel in almost every dance-floor hit and party-rap radio smash. An artist who sonically and visually tore through pretenses of what hip-hop and R&B could sound and look like, with one foot planted firmly in the early party anthems of the former, and another in the seductive, urban post-new jack sheen of the latter. Missy Elliott is back—but you know that already. The Grammy-winning superstar released a new video and single “Throw It Back,” just as she’s about to receive another career accolade. The Virginia native is feeling the love—what better time to come roaring back with new music?
Missy make up her own rules
Not many can do what I do
So many VMAs that I could live on the moon
Man, I jump and you leap
Better wake up if you sleep
I did records for Tweet before y'all could even tweet
Y’all be thinkin’ shit’s sweet…
Alongside the “Throw It Back” single and video, Missy dropped her new EP Iconology on Friday, and the five-song EP is a reminder (in case anyone breathing needed one) of everything the pop/hip-hop/R&B/dance genius does well. Working alongside her comrade-in-arms Timbaland and Wili Hendrix, the project boasts the kind of skittering beats and slinky grooves no one can do quite like Missy—her voice and playfully no-nonsense rhymes in fine form across the set’s brief running time. She’s been making her presence felt again for years now, after taking time to step away from the spotlight following 2005’s The Cookbook. In 2015, she memorably took the stage alongside Katy Perry at Super Bowl XLIX and released a comeback single that year, the Pharrell-guested “W.T.F. (Where They From),” announcing her place alongside a new generation of pop stars and consumers who’d come of age in her considerable musical shadow.
She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last year, only the second hip-hop artist to receive the honor (after Jay-Z) and the first woman in hip-hop to be inducted. This year she earned an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, guested on Lizzo’s “Tempo,” and it was announced in early August that Elliott would be receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, an honor that fans have been demanding for what seems like forever. Comebacks can be truly hard to come by in popular music, but Missy Elliott made it look so easy that it’s easy to forget that she was ever not in the spotlight.
“This year has been a tremendous year for me,” she wrote on Instagram, sharing the Iconology artwork. “I am humbled and grateful. THANK YOU for allowing me to smell the roses. You, my fans, and God are the reason I am here and have celebrated every milestone with me! So, I have a SURPRISE for you… let’s continue the celebration at midnight tonight…I’m dropping a collection of new songs! Let’s #ThrowItBack to a time when music just felt good and made us want to dance! Sincerely, Dr. Melissa “Missy” Elliott #Iconology.”
Her image flew in the face of ’90s norms and helped redefine them. She is a 21st century hip-hop icon who was three years ahead of schedule, a songwriter who gifted some of the most beloved R&B acts of her generation—from Aaliyah to Tweet to SWV to Total—countless, career-defining hit songs and albums. And she is a rapper unafraid to be as fun and as freaky as she wanna be; on the heels of mid-’90s fatalism, Missy was as joyous as she was outside-the-box. Where the shiny suits of Puffy and Ma$e may have seemed commercially potent but creatively lacking, Missy’s brand of infectious pop-rap was wildly imaginative, with inspired samples, forward-thinking ideas—and with Timbaland as her wingman, a sonic backdrop that would reshape the landscape in ways that made contemporaneous stuff from Bad Boy and others sound almost mundane.
Innovation in popular music doesn’t always hold up decades later. Some of the most groundbreaking albums and singles of all time can often sound standard or even routine to later listeners, but Missy Elliott’s music has never felt ordinary, even as we’ve seen so many other sounds come and go. When you think about all that has transpired musically since Supa Dupa Fly in 1997—from Mannie Fresh’s percolating late-’90s digital bounce to the pop sheen of Pharrell and the Neptunes overtaking 2000s radio, to the crunk revolution, hot popular runs by producers like Zaytoven and Bangladesh, the atmospheric textures of Noah “40” Shebib, and the early 2010s omnipresence of trap beats by wunderkinds like Metro Boomin and Mike Will Made It—it is truly remarkable that Missy Elliott circa 1997 sounds like both the jumping-off point for so much of the next two decades while also sounding two to ten steps ahead of it all. It’s not just that what she and Timbo did was groundbreaking; it’s that it would still sound forward-pushing today.
The Vanguard Award was a long time coming, and it’s easy to see why so many pondered aloud why Missy had to wait so long. In the years since Jackson’s heyday, no other artist has done more to maximize the creative potential of the music video. She’s the standard-bearer for the hip-hop generation and everything that’s come after, often teaming up with Hype Williams to deliver visuals that have remained etched in pop culture: the bubble suit from “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”, the Mega Man-themed energy of “Sock It To Me,” the fun creepiness of “Get Ur Freak On,” and the b-girl inspired “Work It,” with its choreographed call-and-response breakdancers in a high school hallway. The videos are as indelible as the songs themselves. And in the days before YouTube, they changed the way we engaged with the medium; a Missy Elliott world premiere on MTV was an event that few could command. At an event for the of his new single “Can’t Rap/Midas Touch” this summer, no less a legend than Slick Rick called Elliott the bar. She has remained as such.
At 48, Missy still has so much creativity and is still pushing herself to stay ahead of trends while also recognizing that enviable legacy she’s earned. She has more than enough reason to pop shit about what she’s done. In the video for “Throw It Back,” (which features Teyena Taylor), she references the ever-ubiquitous “Work It” and also nods to her legacy as a defining MTV artist, as she plants a Missy flag on the moon as a nod to the network’s iconic “Moon Man” award statue. She’s a legend, an icon and so many of the other descriptors often applied to stars of the moment as convenient hyperbole. Not so with “Misdemeanor.” Two decades later, Missy remains at the vanguard of popular music.