The Avant-Garde Genius of Missy Elliott

The Avant-Garde Genius of Missy Elliott

Additional reporting by Donna-Claire Chesman

It’s one of the catchiest phrases in rap — and one of the most incomprehensible: “Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup.” The iconic Missy Elliott lyric does exactly what Missy commands in the previous line (“Put my thing down, flip it and reverse it”) and encapsulates Elliott’s masterly command of language.

Producer Timbaland wasn’t in the room when Elliott and her engineer nailed that verse in “Work It,” off of 2002’s Under Construction, but he remembers being shocked and impressed by the results. “It’s deeper than the reverse,” he tells TIDAL. “How did she know to pick those words to reverse? How did she know it would give it that rhythm? That cadence? That’s what is ingenious about it; that’s what caught me.”

Tim wasn’t the only one ensnared by Elliott’s command over words; she changed the way we hear music. Across her impeccable career, she’s challenged the conventions of language, forcing us to listen with fresh ears — which is why we’re not surprised that she’s the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (June 13). We’re just shocked it didn’t happen sooner.

From her scatting (“Work It”) and her tricking code (“The Rain”) to her playful deliveries (“Pass Da Blunt”), Missy Elliott democratizes language; she hides what she really means behind her expertly crafted lyrics, circumventing those who would otherwise silence her. There’s an aura of discovery to a Missy Elliott record; listening is like stumbling into another world.

We reached out to Elliott for an interview to no avail, which is no surprise, according to Timbaland. “If you look back at it, Missy doesn’t do a lot of interviews, because she feels like her music is the interview,” he says. “It’s natural for her, it’s her way of expressing herself.” So we’ll work with what we have here to tell her story: her music, her chosen words.

Born Melissa Arnette Elliott, Missy Elliot first broke into the music world with R&B group Sista in the early ‘90s. She then took her knowledge of melody and teamed up with Timbaland in the late ‘90s to launch her solo career. In the two decades since her formal debut, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Elliott’s name became synonymous with invention, playfulness, sensuality, and, above all else, freedom of black expression.

“Missy was a person who pushed me, who watched what I did, and turned around to make a masterpiece,” Timbaland says. “It’s unexplainable. Unorthodox, but light. She makes something that’s not the norm normal.”

For proof, take a look at Supa Dupa Fly: the creep of the album would be lurid if it wasn’t so wonderfully impressionistic. The hook of “Hit Em Wit Da Hee,” (“I hit ‘em with the hee/I hit ‘em with the/I stop ‘em with the haaa”) sounds like nothing but nonsense from a distance. But the delivery and the swagger Missy brings to the table translate what sounds like gibberish into a universal vibe: it’s time to kick ass and take names.

The same goes for “Izzy Izzy Ahh,” the chorus of which, in short, bends language. From a distance “Izzy Izzy ahh zizah zizah zizah/Hard bitches be talkin’ like they all rah rah” might be incoherent, but once you listen enough, you’ll learn to speak Elliott’s language. She simply has no time for chicken heads.

Yes, her meanings aren’t obvious, but her delivery is delightful. We’re absorbed into her sonic universe, enjoying the music on her terms. Coltrane had sheets of sound and Missy has sheets of phonemes bumbling out of her mouth, making something insular and inspiring for years to come.

Take her ‘97 classic, “The Rain.” An iconic debut single boasting an equally iconic video, “The Rain” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and established Missy Elliott as a force in hip-hop. Consider the stickiness and everlasting quality of “Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep, vroom/I’m driving to the beach.” Elliott paints a complete picture of a getaway in a handful of words; contrasting against the Ann Peebles-sampled hook, the track tackles the need to escape the pangs of broken love.

We don’t explicitly catch her meaning until the third verse: “Chumpy, I break up with him before he dump me/To have me, (I can’t stand the rain) yes you lucky (against my window).” Elliott sounds like a controlled wildfire, burning in the distance and mesmerizing us. “The Rain” is a claim to power and an honest portrayal of being toyed with. By the end of the track, we understand that the boy is the rain, and, while the rain once represented pummeling heartache, it’s now beneath us. The imagery and inversion is a masterful path to agency, an approach Missy Elliott perfected.

Missy Elliott’s allusion to fellow great Ms. Lauryn Hill increases the impact of the track, as she lays down her lineage for all to see (“I sit on Hills like Lauryn”). Not only is she calling out her influences, she’s placing herself squarely in the Hall of Fame. Looking back on “The Rain” in light of her recent induction, every milestone in her career feels fated and even more satisfying.

Speeding up to 1999’s Da Real World — another seminal record — “Hot Boyz” is a moment of reclamation in the vein of “The Rain.” Here, Missy Elliott defines her man on her terms. Where hip-hop is often centered on the male gaze and the domination and commodification of women, Elliott flips that convention on its head and delivers bars like: “Is that your car, the XK8?/Are you ridin’ alone, can I be your date?/Come get me, get me/Don’t diss me, don’t trick me.”

Let’s focus on “Come get me” and the impressive command Elliott has over the track. She declares herself a prize, with or without male attention, breaking down the notion that women don’t matter unless they’re next to a man. Her confidence in her sexuality is extraordinary.

Take the dominance she asserts with: “Give me no reason, I know that you treatin’/ These diamonds I’m needin’, make you believe it / I want a lot, boy, with a hot boy.” Her demanding demeanor flips the well-worn script: men rapping demands at their women. Now, Missy is deciding who is and is not sexy — and she’s spending your money in the process. Elliott broke down barriers and sounded icy while she did it.

Then it’s back to “Work It,” from 2002’s Under Construction. The track is a direct elevation of Elliott’s skill — and upgrade from the wonderful garble of “Izzy Izzy Ahh.”

“She pushed play and the hook, the rhythm, the cadence, was spot on,” Timbo says of making “Work It.” They went through two versions of the track before Missy knocked it out on the third pass.

There is no rule Missy Elliott has not broken. She became the rule by thriving as the exception. Somewhere during the “Ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” of “Work It,” she once again cemented herself as the gold standard of lyricism and creativity.

“She wrote a rhythm to life that was unorthodox,” Timbo says with a smile. “I don’t know if they made a word for magic that can’t be explained to people.”

Missy Elliott’s music brought us to the future of hip-hop and R&B, and the aforementioned selections are just a smattering of the wide breadth of lyrical excellence Missy cataloged across her career. Her uncanny ability to make language malleable is just one reason why her induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame is so deserved.

“You will play her songs for 20 years; it will pass over generations,” Timbaland assures. “She’s in that Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder [club]. She is the Aretha Franklin of hip-hop.”

Few artists will go down as smoother, colder and more creative than Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott.

 (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

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