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As black as Queen & Slim seems on its glossy exterior, there's another layer to explore beyond the blackness, a level of self-awareness that both protagonists endure that encapsulates the heart of those that relate on a spiritual plane. To see the realization of that happen in real-time at the highly-anticipated film’s star-studded premiere afterparty at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel is something you wouldn’t soon forget.
Snoop Dogg walks through, Janelle Monae is over there, Tracee Ellis-Ross’ illuminating smile turns heads, Rihanna flicks it up with stans, all while the fearless foursome of the movie’s screenwriter Lena Waithe (creator of Showtime's The Chi), director Melina Matsoukas (of HBO’s Insecure and Beyonce music video directing fame), and stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and new stunner Jodie Turner-Smith bask in the accolades and appreciation. So much so, that there is a moment where the movie’s many co-stars (Bokeem Woodbine is stellar as "Uncle Earl") and fellow Hollywoodites stare in awe as Turner-Smith takes pics and b-lines to her reserved section where her mom and family welcome her with open arms. Clad in an all-black skintight number, Turner-Smith shakes what her momma gave her in a happy two-step victory dance that looks like a “Momma I Made It!” commercial.
And rightfully so. Kaluuya watches proudly from the stage, as does Waithe and a beautiful middle-aged black woman from public relations rushes up, hands shaking from nervousness and bursts into tears while speaking to Turner-Smith. “You have no idea how much joy you gave me seeing you with your brown glowing skin, strong stance and grace. You. Gave. Me. Strength!” Turner-Smith takes in the energy, delivers a hug and love right back before she gets emotional. Her task of breaking through the screen to touch hearts is seemingly accomplished. Yet, her job of explaining how she and Kaluuya brought this universal gem of a tale to life starts now and will continue for them both as their performances elicit a certain soul-stirring bond for viewers that will stick with them for eternity.
Earlier that same night presented the most Hollywood of movie premieres for Queen & Slim. You know the setup: the hustle and bustle of overzealous security guards, stressed-out public relations reps trying to wrangle talent from the hangers-on in tow of celebrities that barely know where to go or which camera to look into while on the red carpet. Then there's the air of VIP status from everyone else in attendance, scrambling on check-in lines for prime viewing seats and after-party wristbands so they can drink the spirits and the night of celebration away. The scene at the legendary TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., for the early view, rebels on the run film was no different. Well...maybe it was for a bit this unusually chilly November night.
Before the movie starts in front of the dark cavernous 900-plus seater with only the stage area lit, Waithe and her choice in director and good friend, Matsoukas address the crowd. Both have heartfelt words to impart to one another, the audience and the lead actors Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The British thespians stand next to them, while Waithe and Matsoukas wax poetic on the two that create the world that Queen and Slim navigate through so thoroughly.
Waithe’s short-cropped haircut and orange and blue tapered slacks and fitted jacket takes to the podium and loves on the satin-white-suited Kaluuya: “With a single look, you can break my heart. With a single movement, you can make me feel like I’ve known you all my life. You don’t just disappear into roles, you morph into the human being you’re playing, because you’re not playing. You’re doing the impossible, you’re existing in celluloid so that we as a people can never be forgotten. You are not an icon awaiting, but an icon already...we love you and thank you for sharing your gift with us.” There's a loving embrace between Waithe and Kaluuya, surrounded by well-deserved applause.
Then Matsoukas steps up in a hunter green leather pantsuit, long bob hairstyle and shines a light on Tinseltown's newest black woman lead in Turner-Smith, who's rocking a sheer lavender gown with 1920s Billie Holiday finger waves. “Jodie, our Queen, this was the role of a lifetime and not only did you take it on and exceeded all of our expectations, the moment we saw your face, we knew it was you," Matsoukas said. "When you walked into the room for your chemistry read with Daniel, he shrank. Not because he felt small, but because he knew he was in the presence of royalty. [Wild applause] Your stride, your skin, your power can’t be forced. You are walking joy. So for you to play a woman that liked living in the dark, that doesn’t smile easily and doesn’t like to let people in, is truly a master class in acting. Your performance is stunning. We are so honored to introduce you to the world. Thank you for trusting us with your gift. We love you and we know the rest of the world will too.” More applause, more hugs and more screams of positive affirmations flood the venue.
Queen & Slim's production is rather rare in its make-up when you analyze the team that put it together. Waithe, a Chicago repper, is a certified star of writing (Queen & Slim is her first movie screenplay), acting and producing, being the creator of a hit cable series and part of successful productions (Netflix's Master Of None, NBC’s This Is Us, BET’s Boomerang). The New York native, Matsoukas is a directing vet in the music and television world, but Queen & Slim is her directorial film debut. This project screams breakthrough for not only those two, but also for both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The main characters are in new positions as Turner-Smith’s first leading role and Kaluuya’s first executive producing shot. Understand, this cinematic offering rarity is majority woman-led and black woman-led at that.
Being in prime production position to cheer for from the get-go is what has everyone so wild with enthusiasm about Q&S. The movie trailer, in its present-day setting is fast-paced, glossy and gritty all at once. You see the slick old school ride with big chrome rims, Queen’s thigh-high snakeskin boots, dirt and gravel paved country roads, lush greenery that speeds by in blinks, Slim’s velour sweatsuit so synonymous with parking lot pimpin’ pros from the aughts era that you’d think he was a rapper first and not on the run. Yet, all of the glitter to gain your attention is slashed with what the movie is here to do for you...for us, as a people. “We wanted this to be a love letter to blackness,” Waithe shares at the premiere. What she means by that is how the little things throughout the viewing experience will trigger nuances that attach to damn near every aspect of black life you can live out. The food, the attitudes, the dancing, the words, the rhythm of walk [Queen glides in scenes with the strides of a Gazelle], the tension, the music [the soundtrack will make you dance in the aisle], the love, the anger, the softness, the humor, the confusion, the pure black assed blackness you can’t wash off and you’ll understand it even more so if you are black.
Two days after premiere night's bright lights, the fearless foursome and various supporting cast members are jetting from suite to suite for press interviews. They're all hunkered down on the second floor of Hollywood’s lavishly-laced The London Hotel of Young Thug and J. Cole song fame. Kaluuya is in a friendly state, interacting with hotel staff on the elevator. “Pardon my Bluetooth speaker playing, I need this song right now,” he states with wit. He later admits that the song was probably one by Travis Scott. Waithe passes by in haste to another interview when we say, “Great job on the film, Lena. It’s a hit.” She replies warmly with her hand over her heart, “Why thank you…” No...thank you.
After our photo shoot at the hotel, Turner-Smith appears in elegant style. Still, in the salmon-hued double lapel blazer we shot her in, her face is full of quick smizes and her energy refreshed by a few bites of lunch. We sit and chat on the balcony of the press suite. She's exhausted but ready.
Jodie, seeing you and your family interact at the premiere party felt like a family reunion. Can you share what that moment was like for you?
It's so funny because it made me immediately think of how my mom and my stepdad came to visit me on set in New Orleans. It was so special for them. When I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, they didn't know what the hell I was doing or why. They’re Jamaican and they were very concerned. They were like, "This is not a plan." When they came to New Orleans [where Queen & Slim was filmed] to see me, they had a chance to actually see me work. I rented this house in the Garden District and I remember one day coming home from set and we all started dancing in the living room. It was the first time we did something like that. What I love about my parents and Jamaican families is that exuberance we have, which I think is where I get my joy from, my energy and my attitude. They're just like very fun-loving people, but I had never really interacted with my parents in that way because when you're a kid it's like you need to be seen and not heard, you need to do what you need to do. For them, I feel like to celebrate with me in that way, it was like how far we'd come in our relationship and how far I thought...like they trusted, and what joy that I had come in my life. When I was dancing with my mom at the premiere, it just made me think of that day in New Orleans when we danced together.
It makes me so happy that they can see me doing this and feel proud of me because really that's worth everything.
(Wipes tears from her eyes) I'm so emotional.
Yes, that's beautiful. And then just as your emotions are coming out now, right after that moment, you start to mingle with everyone else and a woman comes up to you as I'm about to approach you and she starts crying.
Oh, my God.
Yes, I do.
And you were trying to console her, but she was going on and on about how your character was strong throughout the film and gave her so much strength and how beautiful you were in how you moved within the film.
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thursday night was better than anything i could have expected!!! ✨ i’m still so blown away by the fact that i was chosen to be a part of this very special film and i cannot wait for you all to see it!!! a very special thank you to @alessandro_michele #gucci for making me into a fierce mermaid queen 👑💜
Do you understand as much as you've made your family proud, how many other women, especially women that don't get the representation that you're putting on screen, do you know how much you're representing for them?
I mean, I'm starting to see it. Wow, I'm just like a mess. I'm sorry, you're making me cry.
Oh, my goodness. Take your time. It was such a beautiful moment to see because she just started pouring her heart out. You're taking this energy, you know, from this woman that was just obviously wowed by your performance.
Honestly, you think about it in a way, in a smaller way because...when they were casting this role, they wanted a specific kind of woman for this movie. You think about that because I'm a black woman, I'm a dark-skinned black woman. I think about what I grew up seeing, what I didn't see growing up, and what it felt like when I did see someone who I thought that I could relate to, just living their life on screen.
For everyone to see, you know? So that wasn't lost on me that. There's going to be people that felt like I felt when I was younger and that first time that I saw someone that was like me. I have definitely thought about that before, but you can never really account for what it feels like when someone stands in front of you, when they are so moved. I was just so humbled by that because I really understand that what that's coming from is that I allow myself to be a vessel for Queen's truth, and for who that woman was created to be. I know that because I know that in order to do it so many times, I have to tell myself that I have to get out of the way because if I try to do this through the lens of who I am, I would be lost and confused. There were so many times where I just had to be like, "I surrender to the story. I surrender to the process. I surrender to the leader's vision because I trust her so much that she knows what she's doing and how she's doing it." It's just really beautiful to be able to be a vessel for that because I know that in many ways, it's not about me.
I know that it's happening because I was able to be that vessel. I'm humbled and glad. I remember when we were making the film that there would be small times and moments where people on set would say something to me and it would make me feel like if even one person had a response like that. Like I've done something, I did something.
I don't know what I did, but I did something. It's such a privilege to be given the opportunity to make us feel something. I feel a lot, as you can tell. I'm just here weeping.
Well, it's beautiful. Throughout the film, what you get to see is a strong black woman who fights for others’ rights and is dealing with so much past trauma.
Listen, trauma. It's so funny because I was talking to someone about it. I was saying it's interesting how certain things that you experience, whether you believe in God or not, certain things that you experience will make you feel God. Love, you know what I mean? Trauma, tragedy. All those things will make you feel—
Joy. Hope. "I'm not a prayer person." You'll always hear that [from others]. "I don't usually do it, I don't usually talk to you [God], but I'm going to talk to you now because..." So interesting how whatever you believe that God is, we all feel God.
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ALL THIS CHOCOLATE. @queenandslim premiere. #AFIFEST
Yes indeed. Did you believe that it was destiny for you to be able to have your breakout role with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas where everyone seems to be in a new position with their firsts: Lena's screenplay, Melina's directorial debut and Daniel's first big executive position?
Definitely. It feels way too special to just be. I don't really believe in coincidence. And the way that everything has happened in my life, especially for the last 10 years of living in L.A. and the way I've seen things happen, it's like everything has been like this. It's always like this culmination of being. I went to business school so what they teach you in business school was that success is about positioning yourself to get lucky. It's not just about how hard you work. It is also about a little bit of luck. To position yourself to catch the luck when it comes. There have been so many things that I've done and it was doing that, where I was just, without even knowing, because I was never attached to what it would look like if I was positioning myself to one day find myself in an opportunity like this. When it happened, I need to sit and sit with them and hear them talk and hear them say that they knew when I walked in that I was Queen. This whole thing has been a meditation and remembering that yes, you deserve this, you earned this, you're supposed to be here.
It's okay to embrace that.
And Daniel would always tell me that, too. I see now that I've gotten through the process and the experience of that, that we're all kind of evolving in our relationship together and with the filmmakers. Someone very close to me watched the movie and said to me, “When I watched that movie, I saw how much Melina trusted you.” It's something that even I didn't realize while I was doing it.
The iconic imagery of it, like the photo, everyone wearing your shirt, you know that's going to happen immediately after this film.
Everyone loves the shirt already. I have a box of merch, my family, my friends. I mean everyone.
They were handing it out after the after-party.
Yeah, my aunt puts on the T-shirt...I'll tell you my mom was so upset. She said, "Why are you putting that on over your outfit?" My aunt said, “I don't care, I'm wearing this.” It's so dope to be a part of a film that I feel like we've made for the people and the people love it.
And the messaging of it. Do you feel like there are different layers as far as self-love? Police brutality?
Yes. I feel like that speaks to blackness in that it's like you have love, right? Then you have this violence, you have this trauma. For example, the love scene is intercut with the riot.
It's such an example of what it means to be black and the black experience because here you have black love existing and thriving. Meanwhile, there's this violence and turmoil and the way that Melina cut that scene. It was always written that way that it would be intercut, but the way that she cut that scene and made it like poetry. Then to see these two black people making love and it was sensual, passionate, and urgent. Nothing about it felt hyper-sexualized and animal, which is usually how it is. And especially for myself, I came from modeling and doing music videos. It's like the way that people always want to depict and I'd be like myself is in a way that's animal.
And look, all of those things exist in us. Whereas humans, we're also animals. But it's often just being depicted in that way, in a way that is not about the art of it or even it's not about the agency, it is that this is the lens through which the person who is trying to take your picture or capture you sees you.
Just the way they got the look on there, too. Lit beautifully, the cinematography is amazing.
The cinematographer was a white man, Pat Radcliffe. Melina said something that I thought was so interesting, too. He never gave us any limitations of color because some people say, "Oh, you know, you don't want to put black people in white because then we don't know how to fu**ing light it." And it's like no, this man knows how. To me, things like that, that's being a white ally.
When you and your craft understand, like our makeup artists. My makeup artist is a white woman. That woman in the beginning of the movie, I remember the first time I said, “Oh, you know what? She's the truth.” [It] was when she did my makeup and when I came to the end of the day to take my makeup off, I was like, “Oh, it's still my face.”
It wasn't much different. Whereas toward the end of the movie, because she was creating a story with our faces because as we were on the run, everything was trauma. She started creating the trauma on our face as well, you know? The stress. By the end, I would take my makeup off and say, “Oh, thank God. That wasn't my face," because I was like, “Oh, I look fu**ed up.”
Queen going through it.
"I'm tired, girl, what's going on?" Melina, after a set point in the movie, said, "You have to be ashy." And I was like...wait a minute, “Melina, what?” She said, “You're on the run. You're not going to be lotioned up.” I said, “Melina.” I'd have to sneak lotion in the morning before I came to work. I could never put lotion on at work. I looked awkward, too, like “Baby, you're ashy.”
When I watched your Today Show interview, you said it usually takes you about four hours to read a script, but you read this one in an hour? What part of that hour did you say, "All right, I'm in?"
There were no breaks. I just wanted to know what happened next. At the end, I said, "What? We're going to make time work." Especially after Get Out. I'm sitting there like, "All right, cool." [Black] Panther hadn't come out yet. Widows hadn't come out here, and I'd got Panther and Widows pre-Get Out, coming out.
I realized that "Oh, after Get Out, I need to be very purposeful. It's going to say a lot about me, what I do after that." It just felt like I really wanted this to go, "When I'm more responsible for my career, this is how I move, this is the direction I want to step into." It was after filming it that it came to me.
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Slim in The Underground, 2019. By Andre D. Wagner. #QueenAndSlim
What made you say, "I'm going to step into this role”?
I felt a kinship to the source material. I wanted to help it get over the line and do what it needs to do, but also it's understanding the frustration and the disappointment in so many films that you'd hear about being from England, being from London, black films that you'd hear about and they never make it to the cinemas.
And they just said, "Oh, they don't travel. They don't this. They don't that." And feeling a responsibility to go, "I want to change that narrative and say no." Not necessarily other films that are way more specific than, I don't know, a Great Debaters or a Menace II Society. They travel, they managed to make it through. They managed to get a nationwide release and there's not a pressure for them to make money in order for them to be valid. I felt a responsibility to go, "Listen, I need to be part of those conversations." And also to support these women, I was helping out with a script. There's a lot of the stuff that's in the script that's from conversations me and Lena have had. I was the first person to read it.
Whoa. She felt like it was for you?
No, not at all. We were just in conversation. We were talking and chilling and then she said what she was working on. Then she sent it to me and said, "I'd love for you to read it." Then I said, "I want to play Slim." We just had early conversations. I read it before Melina, so it was that kind of situation.
Now that you are an executive producer on it, why did you name your company 59%?
It's the win rate of Billy Beane in Moneyball. I love Moneyball, I feel like my life is Moneyball.
Because I had to think differently to get what I need to do, to do what I need to do.
To act, you had to think differently?
Because I'm black.
But also, hold on. If you're out here [in America], you're not just black. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, has said something along the lines of "the black British guys get the best roles." But, it’s as though you had to...
It's not... Not only I'm black, but I also come from a background where... I was on free school meals. People don't know to understand the nuance of the British experience and what it's really like. I couldn't afford drama school. So this perception I'm coming in with like, "You're benefiting from XYZ," I don't. I couldn't afford the privilege that I'm supposed to have had. So there's this self-education that I've had to have had and have to think differently before I could even think about working in America. I had to have a 10-year career. I've got to get my mom situated. I've got to get my family financially supported and have a foundation in order to even think about living my dreams. And that's the same with Damson Idris, John Boyega, Letitia Wright. We're all a wave of people that didn't go to conventional drama school.
But that label is there because of what—
But that's the problem: we're misrepresented. And that's a parallel, we're told who we are. You didn't even have a conversation with me about it. That's what I'm trying to say, I have to then take that in and go, "All right, cool. Dah dah dah dah dah," and try and go, "That's not who I am,” and still navigate that space. That goes about thinking differently and seeing the game differently.
Things really shifted in me when I stopped playing the conventional game and tried to do what everyone else is doing and go, "Listen, I'm not competing with anyone but myself. And my past. And the stuff I want to do. That's it."
What 59% represents is... I Googled all my favorite football managers, like soccer, football managers that I love, and over a 40-year career, the best managers, their win rate was 59 percent. I said, "This is a through-line in here and this is what winning actually looks like. This is because the winning is in the win. The win is the journey, and the fulfillment and satisfaction you have on that journey." So I said, "How you think differently when an obstacle or something's trying to derail you, is actually an opportunity to grow, and figure it out." At the end of the day, no one's 100 percent. It's just how you show up the next day. There's always another game and I love that metaphor.
Did you gravitate toward him in that way because of the transition he made?
Well, yeah man, there's an evolution there. And I think it's an interest in meditation and the interrogation of black masculinity. What does that mean to be hard? The parallels between Slim and Uncle Earl, he's the one that's outwardly, overtly what someone would go, "That's that guy." But look at the turmoil he has gone through. Look at what he does when he's intoxicated. Look at the hurt he inflicts to people that he supposedly loves. Then Slim is seen as the more vulnerable sensitive type, but he's there for his woman.
He called his family. That was an important thing for him to get to his family.
Exactly. He just wants to be with his family and there's strength in that. There's strength in wanting to have a life just there. Just wanting to have family, wanting to chill. There's strength in that, and we put a lot of these aspirational people on a pedestal when actually, sometimes they're just running from stuff. He's not running from anything. He's trying to keep his life together because he actually loves his life, and he loves the people in his life. He's surrounded by love.
For me, a satisfying element of cinema is seeing someone change over the course of two, three hours. I always look for points where I could do that.
You did it excellently.
What did you feel was the film’s message outside of police brutality, poverty, relationships and love? What did you get out of that, working with Jodie?
Compromise was a big theme. Relationships are about compromise, respect, and how easy compromise is if you respect each other. You don't hold onto sh*t, you don't need to because it's, "All right, if that makes a person happy, then cool." Putting the ego to the side when you have to and making sure you're present. It's so interesting that they’re able to connect when they throw their phones away. They're not running away, they're not trying to go, "I can get someone else in this app, get someone else here, I can go out there." They have to face each other and they actually have more in common than they realize.
And I think that's a really great theme that's in it.
You're looking to play Fred Hampton. What was it about his story that attracted you?
I just thought he's a brilliant man. And I'm similar to you, where I heard about him, rap lyrics, and then I saw the Soul of the Nation and there was an art piece that was inspired by him. I was like, "He's 21?" It blew my mind. And he doesn't look 21. He's got such a presence.
When this came through and Ryan Coogler and Shaka King spoke to me about it, and I read it for the first time, I said, "I don't even understand the ideas he has." This is like 1969, and I said, "I don't understand how he speaks and what he thinks." And just any opportunity, for me, what's blessed about all of our jobs, we live in a space where we can just learn stuff that we wouldn't know because...and we get paid. We can spend all day like, "Oh, what's this mean? What's that mean?." It all informs our work. It's really great to go into his psyche, go into the world of the late '60s and understand the history and what led to that point of that generation being, "We're not having it anymore." And understanding him as a man, and what he was around and the tide he was up against.
Photographer: Peter Dokus
Art Designer: Nicole Tereza
Videographers: Laetitia Rumford
Wardrobe Stylist: Petra Flannery
Wardrobe Assistant: Lauren Mock
Makeup Artist: Allan Face
Makeup Assistant: Ruby Vo
Hair Stylist: Larry Sims
Groomer: Tasha Reiko Brown
Nail Artist: Thuy Nguyen
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1995 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Written By: Scott Poulson-Bryant Photographs By: Jon RagelOne big summer movie - Bad Boys. Two prime-time funnymen - Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Teaming up to bust caps as well as guts, Smith and Lawrence are an odd couple on the screen and off. Scott Poulson-Bryant talks with both of them about Blowing Up and Growing Up.
When you think about it, it's downright unprecedented. Prime-time television's biggest black stars—Will Smith of The Fresh of Bel-Air and Martin Lawrence of Martin—are starring in Bad Boys, a big-budget Hollywood action-comedy full of stunts and explosions and big, crowd-pleasing laughs. Two for the price of one. Call it Beverly Hills Cop 2 meets Miami Twice.
It's easy to think these entertainers, who hold sway over their own hit network sitcoms, would have been at each other's throats, throwing prima donna shade over the slightest of perceived slights. But according to both actors, things were smooth. "We basically ad-libbed every scene," Will says. "It was two and a half months of two of the silliest guys in comedy doing exactly what they wanted to."
In Bad Boys, they play two Miami detectives in the special narcotics division whose temperaments are 180 degrees apart: Will is Mike Lowrey, a flashy playboy; Martin is Marcus Burnett, a homebody family man with a mortgage to pay. After making the biggest arrest in the department's history, the duo have to find the thief who stole $100 million worth of heroin from the station house, or they'll lose their jobs.
Smith and Lawrence weren't necessarily playing their roles from experience—offscreen they're different, but not in the way the Bad Boys are. At the time of filming, Will was the married-with-child brother who wanted to focus on family values, and Martin was the recently dis-engaged rascal, doing his thing on the singles scene. Now, on the eve of the film's release, it seems they've done another role reversal. Will Smith is grappling with an impending divorce from Sheree, his wife for more than two years, and with how it will affect their two-year-old son, Willard C. "Trey" Smith III. He says he's not yet ready to talk about the situation, though he does note that the sudden death of his infant half brother, Sterling, took him back to Philly, where he now intends to spend more time. On the flip side, Martin Lawerence got married in January to ex beauty queen Patricia Southall. He and his wife are planning for children, and Lawrence, after a year of professional ups and downs, looks at the future with great expectations.
Everything's happening so fast for these two transplanted twentysomething East Coast guys who found fame and fortune out West by doing their versions of black-boy cool for the masses. So fast and furious, in fact, that crammed schedules never allowed all three of us to meet at the same time. I had to wait endlessly for Martin. First he was just back from his Caymans honeymoon, then he said he had injured his back, then he was busy finishing his show's "Player's Ball" episode, featuring an array of blaxploitation stars. All that waiting, however, left plenty of time to chill with the very accommodating Will Smith.
We spent one day cruising around L.A., pumping Teddy Riley's BLACKstreet tape in Will's white Ford Bronco. I had been there last June when the media began its all-out assault on OJ, so driving along the freeway in this particular ride with a black male superstar at my side took on an almost surreal quality. "I had mine before all that started," Will noted. But the irony didn't escape him. When the ringing car phone signaled Will's booming system to automatically pause, one thing raced through my mind: The rich really are different. But the price of livin' large is steep out in this bright-lights, big-titty world, where dream seekers flock and where black boys, in particular, come to Blow Up, if not to Grow Up. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are trying their best to do both.
Caverting around the low-key set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wearing oatmeal colored linen and boots, Will Smith seems thinner in person, wiry almost, even though he had to follow an extensive workout regimen for his movie role. His face does its trademark dance between seriousness and just buggin', the balancing act between sophistication and boyishness that has kept this 26-year-old in the public eye for the past eight years.
Smith's office conveys the same sense of his multi-layered self. A big-screen TV is in one corner, the tangled joystick cords of a Sega video game in front of it. A mini-stereo rests on a low table, surrounded by cassettes. A plethora of gold and platinum DJ JazzyJeff and the Fresh Prince records line the far wall, a reminder of the up-and-down road that led to Will Smith's current state of Blowing Up affairs. And adjacent to that wall hangs a huge painting—by a fan from Miami—of Will uncharacteristically in repose. It doesn't seem vain for Will Smith to have a massive painting of himself in his dressing room. One gets the impression he needs his, more serious side to look down upon him, to bestow the necessary intensity to reach his goal: to be the reigning funnyman in the prime-time wars—which is as serious a job as any, as Martin Lawrence also well knows.
"What makes you an effective superhero is that you don't want to be," says Bad Boys costar Will Smith. "Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard--- the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot."
With five years of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air under his belt, Will Smith has the hip teen thing down. I ask him if he thinks he's a natural clown—considering the comedic video persona of his early rap days and raucous appearances on late-night talk shows—and he laughs. "I'm just outgoing," he says, then pauses, as if that doesn't quite sum it up. Then he jumps right back in to answer, appearing to try out responses in his mind as he goes along. "I'm comfortable enough to impose myself on my surroundings," he continues. "That's the best way to describe it, really. It's a gift. It's the ability to impose myself on my surroundings without making people feel imposed upon."
Good answer, I'm thinking, as he continues on, knowing innately that a good answer isn't enough. Only a great answer will suffice. "But it's always been like that. When I was younger, it was more about being different when everyone else wanted to fit in. I always wanted how I talked or my clothes to be different. Peer pressure never meant anything to me. If something was done one way, something in me resisted it."
He pauses again and laughs. "It was the same way in my music. Something in me enjoyed coming to New York from Philly and people not liking us at first. When everyone else was trying to act tough and grab their dicks, the first thing anyone heard me say on record was, 'Oh man, my eye! This guy just punched me in my eye for nothing.' I enjoyed that. I strove for that. Oris is it strived? Or striven?" He throws his hands in the air, deferring to the writer in the room. "Whatever, just put it right in the article."
Will Smith can make that kind of demand. In fact, you want him to make demands of you because he's so demonstrative, acting out scenes from his life when words won't suffice, rapping entire verses of "The Message" to make his point about rap's changing style, reciting complete Tony Montana monologues from Scarface to illustrate a point you just made, challenging your taste in movies ("You haven't seen Pulp Fiction yet?"), challenging you to one-up him ("Don't you wanna ask me some more questions?"). But it's almost more interesting just to observe Will Smith. He's a perpetual performer, always doing his job, always giving his all.
Six years ago, though, the Fresh Prince nearly gave it all away, nearly lost the crown off his head. He blew up too big too fast, and it all came crashing down. He suddenly went broke. His first album, 1987's Rock the House, went gold the following year. Then 1988's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper eventually sold 3 million copies, spurred by the single "Parents Just Don't Understand." Next, And in This Corner merely went gold, before 1991's Homebase, the return to Philly roots featuring "Summertime," went platinum. His most recent album, 1993's Code Red, went gold. The DJ. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince phone line, the first celebrity 900 number, minted money—in its day it was the second-highest-grossing line behind Dial-A-Joke. "In '87-'88 I was rich," he says. "In '89 I was broke."
Broke like, rich-folks broke? I ask. No dollars in your pocket, but a couple hundred thou tied up in investments and CDs? He laughs and shakes his head vigorously. "Nah, man. I was broke. Like, can't-buy-gas, sell-the-car broke. Actually, you know what? Sell everythingbroke. I was a moron. I had the suburban mansion, a motorcycle, I was traveling the world. I was 18 and the world was open, and when the world is open like that it makes you crazy, you want everything. I wasn't any happier with money, and I wasn't any less happy when I went broke. It hurt, and mentally it was tough dealing with, but inside it didn't change. I still had my family, and I could still have a good time. I could still laugh."
He rebounded in a new arena-prime-time TV as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, post-Cosby sitcom with a nod to The Jeffersons: movin' on up with a hip hop twist. Then, through sheer force of will, Smith made it to the big screen in 1992, debuting in Where the Day Takes You as a wheelchair-bound street kid. His role in the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America (and the screams of teenage girls on the set) led to his landing the plum role of Paul, the sad, confused con man in the critically acclaimed film version of the Broadway hit Six Degrees of Separation. In the process, Will Smith's screen persona grew exponentially, acquiring layers of resonance devoid of the street corner histrionics usually demanded of young black male actors.
As Smith copes privately with the dissolution of his marriage to a woman who shunned the amusement park of the klieg lights, his public persona enters the high-stakes world of shoot-'em-up, make-'em-laugh, big-bank movies. And he may have just found his Axel Foley—the role that will give him a defining big-screen image. Produced by the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer team behind Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop series, Bad Boys stretched Smith in ways he's never been stretched before.
"With all that jumping and shooting when you're making an action movie, you realize that it's a stunt, not a trick," he says. "And it brings out all that testosterone. I saw how the situation brings that stuff out in people. Everybody has an action hero in them; everyone wants to kick in a door and shoot somebody." On the other hand, he says, "I knew it had to be as real as possible, because what makes you an effective superhero is that you don't want to be. Like Bruce Willis in Die Hard the last thing he wanted to do was run over that glass barefoot. People can't relate to a guy who just jumps in front of bullets."
Martin Lawrence knows that too, considering the potshots he's taken in public over the past year. Coming on the sitcom scene more than two years ago as Martin Payne, Lawrence instantly became the quotable cock of the walk with a bop in his step. He was the leading man in Martin (the funniest post-hip hop black show on the air) and did double duty as the host of the successful Def Comedy jam.
But somewhere along the line, Martin lost its stride. Year No. 2—the 1993-94 TV season—was supposed to be the one in which its star, Martin Lawrence, Blew Up, bringing his candid ghetto realness to the moviegoing, record-buying masses with his first concert film, You So Crazy, and comedy album, Talkin' Shit. Things didn't quite work out that way. The endearing wannabe who played Bilal (a.lea. Dragon Breath) in the House Party movies seemed to morph into a larger-than-life, self-made superstar from the 'hood, whose comeuppance was—like Tony Montana's—just around the corner.
First, there was his battle with the Motion Picture Association of America over the NC-17 rating they slapped on his concert film, You So Crazy. Of course there was race issues here (why a brotha gotta get the NC-17?) and censorship issues (why a brotha gotta get told what to say?), but what got lost in all the hoopla was that this comedic performance didn't meet the high standards he had already set for himself. Neither did his next notorious public moment.
Last winter, on his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig, Lawrence brought Def Comedy Jam to Lorne Michaels's crib. It was a debacle. Spraying the small stage with the scent of his insecurity and nervousness, Lawrence littered his opening monologue with scatological references that play fine on cable but shocked NBC's brass. He subsequently found himself at the center of a media storm regarding his not-ready-for-network language and subject matter, which ultimately led to his being de-scheduled from an appearance on Jay Leno.
Looking back at the whole situation, Lawrence believes he was "set up" by the SNL people ("They kept telling me, 'Do what you do.' And I did.") and admits to a certain nervous energy that informed his antics. He also says that after so many black folks came out to see him at Radio City Music Hall in New York earlier that year, he anticipated playing to a more racially mixed studio audience. Yet ultimately he chalks the disaster up to youth, to being intimidated by the history and mythology of the once-cutting-edge late-night dinosaur. But for a minute there, it looked like Martin Lawrence was about to be taken out like just another sucker MC.
Lawrence wasn't going to let that happen. He laid low after enduring those storms, held back on public appearances, broke up with his then girlfriend, actress Lark Voorhies, and concentrated on Martin—which was still being talked about, although two years into its run the funniest thing people were saying about the show was that it wasn't funny anymore. (And exactly where was Sheneneh, anyway?) Lawrence also started looking for a movie script that would have a "buddy-buddy feel to it, but something that was real, that would be good for my audience and work for other audiences as well." Which was probably a good move for him: That way he wouldn't have to carry the burden, or the risk, alone—as he did in his concert film and on SNL.
He found Bad Boys, a movie that was, ironically, originally slated to star former Saturday Night Live clowns Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. In the box-office-friendly blend of action and comedy, perhaps Martin saw the opportunity in his first starring role on the big-screen to follow that other foulmouthed black funnyman who found fame on TV. Eddie Murphy, the post-Pryor model of black comic as household name, has already primed the box office for Lawrence and his generation's brand of raw good humor. Maybe Martin Lawrence too had found his Axel Foley—a role that could establish him as a cinematic franchise with Badder Boys and Even Badder Boys to follow. As creative and fluid as his work can be, Martin's savvy very much includes keeping the business plan in full focus.
"I called him Martin Lawrence King," says Smith of his costar. "It's really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity."
Sitting in his small office in the Martin bungalow on the Universal lot, with fake African masks adorning the end tables—"I don't know where they're from," he says casually—Martin Lawrence, dressed in a black turtleneck and gray plaid slacks, comes off less like a creative dynamo than as the Hollywood hyphenate he is: sitcom star, executive producer, sometime writer, and soon-to-be feature film director. He's very wary, even difficult, toward the press these days. Like other stand-up-to-sitcom stars, Martin fought through the usual creative control issues, in part by firing longtime manager and show cocreator Topper Carew, reportedly before a live studio audience. When asked about that incident, his reply is, "I have the utmost respect for him, but I don't wanna go there."
Ask Lawrence if he likes having more power on the set, and he looks at you with a blank stare and asks, "What do you mean by power?" Then he adds, "I have more say, so if I don't like something, we won't do it. If I do like something, we do." Does it make work more difficult with more responsibilities behind the camera? "You have to be the judge of that," he replies tersely. "If people are saying the show's suffering because of it, maybe I'm too much involved in the business."
While making Bad Boys, it wasn't hard for Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to find a working rhythm, even though both guys are more accustomed to having straight men than being them. "You never see two brothers from different networks getting together to do something like this," Lawrence gushes. "But we had a lot of fun. We worked hard together. Since both of us have comic timing on the sitcoms, we knew it was just a matter of getting together and finding out how we complemented each other."
"That's the beauty of working with another comic," agrees Smith. "You go in in the morning and you have no clue what's about to happen. I'm used to changing lines on my show, and he does the same thing. It was like a tennis match. He would say something, then I'd toss a line right back."
Smith was also taken with Lawrence's devotion to the social and cultural impact of their collaboration. "He has a lot of interesting insights," Smith says. "I called him Martin Lawrence King. It's really important to him to be real, and present himself and his work to his audience with integrity. We'd talk for hours about whether our coming together would mean anything to young black kids. Would it mean anything that we were being strong enough for it to work with no problems?"
Which begs the ego question. Compared with Will's accessible playfulness, Martin is guarded and defensive in person. Yet on-camera, he invariably thrusts himself centerstage, as if demanding his costars catch up to his manic energy. His mercurial reputation precedes him. When I mention that he's regarded as a taskmaster, Lawrence replies, "I feel everyone should come to the project as I do. If you don't care as much for it as I do, why are you there?"
When I ask Will Smith, "Do you have a big ego?" he replies, "Yeah, I have a huge ego, but I don't impose it on people. You have to have a big ego to be an actor. But I have control over that, because I don't like how it feels when other people throw their weight around. That experience makes me struggle really hard not impose myself on people for selfish reasons. Ego drives you. I think it's really important. But you have to control your ego; you can't let your ego control you."
When I ask Lawrence the same question, he looks at me for about 20 seconds before responding. After a bit of verbal jousting and nonanswers ("Do you think I have one? What defines a big ego?"), I ask him how he's changed as a result of having a hit TV show, a wedding that was covered by the tabloids, and a big summer movie about to drop.
"I've grown up a little more," he says, "though I don't know if I'll ever be fully grown-up, 'cause I ain't trying to lose the kiddish things in me, 'cause that's what I love. I love to bug out and be spontaneous and talk some shit. I changed for the better, and I'm steady trying to get better at what I do. But by the same token, I talk shit. We all do. "Spoken like a true bad boy.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of VIBE Magazine.
Missy Elliott blasts back onto the scene with her third album, the innovative and sexy Miss E...So Addictive. Marc Weingarten bonds with the reborn, self-aware woman in charge and discovers her new style of sexual healing.
Written By: Marc Weingarten Photographs By: Sacha Waldman
BET's 106&Park is the kind of hip video show designed to lure the viewer into thinking there's a party going on, when in fact every facet of the production is micro-managed to death. The set's decor, with its glitter and cardboard facade, is strictly high-school prom, and the young crowd is bused in to provide the requisite whoo-whoos and arm-pumpings at the proscribed moments.
Within the context of this plastic, denuded TV landscape, Missy Elliott is a splendorous vision of cool. For her guest appearance on tonight's show, she's busting out her new look, which might be called Casual Fabulous: a purple denim jacket and jeans ensemble with "Missy" emblazoned in studs down the right leg, white tennis shoes with matching studs, spiky short hair, and wonderfully gaudy jewelry on each hand.
Elliott's here to show "Get Ur Freak On," the debut video from her new album, Miss E... So Addictive, for the first time in front of a TV audience, but it's hard to tell if the crowd is buzzing or if it's just the usual puffed-up enthusiasm.
"So, tell us about the video, Missy," host AJ reads from the cue card. Elliott explains that it's the first time she's worked with director Dave Meyers, who also directed music videos for Janet Jackson, Dave Matthews Band, and OutKast. Something is afoot here; what, no Hype Williams? The video rolls. Opening shot: The camera pushes in on a Japanese ninja warrior, rambling incoherently. It's a shot across the bow to her hip hop contemporaries: This is gonna be some new crazy Missy sh*t, nothing at all like the old crazy Missy sh*t. Some of the kids in the crowd are stirring audibly. What exactly is this, anyway?
The next scene is in some godforsaken netherworld, where ghostly cadavers hang down like ivy and booty-bumpers seem to dance in a kind of stop-time suspension. Cut to Missy: No space suits here, no goggles. Just a body shimmy and a whole mess of braggadocio. "Listen to me now, I'm lastin' twenty rounds/And if you want me, come and get me now," Missy barks over a strangely compelling Asian riff that sounds like something from Miss Saigon.
It's hypnotic, ballsy, amazing: The BET kids are head-nodding in approval, elbowing each other in the arm. That phoned-in party vibe is slowly morphing into something genuine. Director Meyers pulls out some visual tricks: Missy's neck extends, twists itself toward the lens. She spits, and the viscous globule flies until it finds its way into the mouth of a male dancer. The audience lets out a collective gasp. It's kind of gross, but it's also cool.
Suddenly, the video segues into another Missy jam called "Lickshots," a steady rolling jeep-thumper equally as good as "Get Ur Freak On." Then it all unceremoniously cuts out. The crowd is going psycho; they're actually on their feet, yelling and stomping their approval. Missy seems a little flummoxed and very appreciative: "Thank you, thank you so much," she says, but it's no use. The peanut gallery has drowned her out.
"Man, I ain't never seen anyone get a standing ovation here before," says James Cruz, vice president of promotions at Elliott's management company, Violator/AMG. It sounds like artist hype, but it turns out this is one of the first times any video has received a standing ovation on 106 & Park.
Is Missy Elliott back? With a vengeance, yo.
Suddenly, Elliott found her bountiful cash flow hitting rocky shoals. The 'Supa Dupa Fly' clips had cost $2 million a pop, and they say on Elliott's balance sheet like two-ton weights.
"EVERY time I get reaction like that it feels like it's for the first time." It's the morning after her BET guest shot, and Missy is about to make the promotional rounds at MTV with a series of interviews for various shows. She's still thrilled about what went down last night. "It's like a high. It made me think that my work wasn't in vain," she says. "You know, hopefully, I can get three more years of this!"
Three years? Whatever happened to the brash arrogance of youth? Elliott's not even 30, and she's already talking like a weather-beaten cynic. Perhaps she's seen too much too soon. Having worked the music business from every conceivable angle, Elliott's taking stock now, weighing the good with the bad, and making her moves accordingly. She's certainly a different person from the 25-year-old polymath prodigy who spun the hip hop world on its ear with Supa Dupa Fly in 1997. That album, and Elliott's groundbreaking videos for "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," and "Sock It 2 Me," both of which were directed by Hype Williams, rewrote the rule book for every woman who's ever dreamed of hip hop glory, but who would never dream of compromising herself to achieve it.
Supa Dupa Fly's platinum success, and Elliott's songwriting and producing track record for artists like Aaliyah ("One In A Million," "If Your Girl Only Knew"), 702 ("Steelo"), and SWV ("Can We") among others, enabled the Portsmouth, Va., native to write her own ticket with Elektra. The company gave her a label imprint, The Gold Mind Inc., with a full roster of handpicked talent. At the time, Missy was seemingly bulletproof. She even managed herself. Who needs to give up 20 percent, for Christ's sake, when there's so much money rolling in?
Two years later, Elliott released her follow-up, Da Real World, a darker, less playful album that also sold a million copies, but did so in a much quieter fashion than Supa Dupa Fly (read: negligible media buzz, fewer MTV spins). Gold Mind's inaugural release, Nicole's Make It Hot, sold anemically, despite bearing the freakishly imaginative thumbprint of Elliott's songwriting and production skills.
Suddenly, Elliott found her bountiful cash flow hitting rocky shoals. The Supa Dupa Fly clips with which she had universally raised the standard for video production had cost roughly $2 million a pop, and they sat on Elliott's balance sheet like two-ton weights, dragging down her bottom line. Despite the success of Da Real World's "Hot Boyz," which stayed atop Billboard's rap chart for 18 straight weeks, the album failed to live up to her sales expectations, and she still harbors some residual bitterness about it.
"I was in 'prove your point' mode when I made that album," says Elliott, before heading into the walk-in closet-sized New York City studio where MTV's Direct Effect tapes. "You know, like, can she do it again? I was more intense on that album. I honestly think it could have done a lot better, but Elektra cut my singles off after three, and 'Hot Boyz' broke a record for staying at number one! How can you cut off an album when the last record has done so well?" Sylvia Rhone, chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group, explains that they were "still able to recover and maintain the kind of sales we achieved with Supa Dupa Fly, and with the tremendous success of 'Hot Boyz,' we thought it was best to end on a high note."
Da Real World's failure to live up to Elliott's expectations has spurred her to be more hands-on with every aspect of Miss E...So Addictive, from marketing to single-street dates. "I'm probably more involved with the business side of things now than I am as an artist," says Elliott. "I spend a lot more time in meetings with my artists and for my own project. I thought I knew a lot then, and you learn more as time goes on, but two years ago, I don't think I was educated about the business." That's why "Get Ur Freak On" is being released now, a full month and a half before the album's release, so it can "marinate in the clubs for a while, get a street buzz going."
Elliott may be more involved with biz than show now, but she isn't spreading herself as thin as she once did—booking massive gobs of studio time, working 24-7 as if her life depended on it. Two years ago, she hired Mona Scott, a partner in Violator, the powerhouse management firm that also handles Nas, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Maxwell, among others. If a decision has to be made, it's done by committee now, not a party of one.
"There were situations where I would go into the studio with an artist to lay down a track, and I wouldn't get a check," says Elliott. "Mona told me, 'Look, you've gotta get the first half of the check before you do any work.' The bills were just piling up. A lot of that pressure is off of me now. If there's a situation where I don't want to do something, I don't have to look like the bad guy."
Elliott was spending too much money and not getting enough back in return. "It was crazy," she says. "I mean, I've got a lot of love for this business, but at the same time, I gotta make sure my mom is taken care of." Her mother, Pat Elliott, helps Missy manage her money, pay her taxes on time, and invest prudently whenever a $500,000 check rolls in. She's Missy's most trusted adviser—the only person, in fact, that she trusts unconditionally. When Pat suffered a massive heart attack in March that required rehabilitative therapy, it cast a black cloud over the prosperous, placid little universe Missy had created for the two of them.
"It really messed with me," says Elliott. "I've always been close to my mother, and it's hard for me now, knowing I have to go overseas for the album and leave her. She's all I've got. If she was gone, they'd have to put me in a strait-jacket. I'd be messed up for a long, long time. Just seeing her in the intensive care unit, it was so hard."
When asked how her father—who Pat Elliott divorced when Missy was 14 years old—reacted to her mother's sickness, Missy says, "I don't think he knows about it."
"MAN, I live to take this makeup off!"
Her promotional chores finished at Direct Effect, Elliott leaves MTV's studios in the Viacom building and hops into a stretch limousine waiting for her on 46th Street by the service entrance. She wipes her glitter mascara off with a box of baby wipes, then fumbles through her pocketbook for a copy of the new
"I'm not saying I'm celibate, but I watch a lot of friends who are unhappy because they feel they have to be with a man.... I decided early on that I would never take [stuff] from a man."
album. Popping it into the stereo system, a strident bass thump rattles the limo's windows, and a strange brew of synth sirens and space-age sound effects begins to cast a spell over Elliott. She's in a trance state: eyes closed, arms akimbo, mouthing the words like any other fan: "If I give you head, you'll never leave," she rhymes on "Lickshots."
Make no mistake: Elliott's astonishing new album Miss E... So Addictive is all about sex—how to get it, how to do it, when to spurn it. While she may have touched upon the subject in the past, this represents a subtle shift in Elliott's persona. Gone are the Supa Dupa Fly days, when Elliott was content to be a jeep-beeping homegirl with a space-age secret identity and leave the heavy breathing to pheromone bombs like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. Missy is tired of being, in her words, "a cartoon." It was time to peel off the mask, show the world what Missy was really all about. And, as it turns out, she's all about sex. For virtually any other hip hop performer, this wouldn't be an unusual development, but for Missy, it's a stunner.
Consider her background, which was scarred by sexual trauma at a very early age. A teenage relative sexually abused Elliott beginning when she was eight. This went on frequently over the course of a year. Her father also mercilessly beat her mother for years. "Stuff like that never leaves you," says Elliott. "I'll never forget walking into the house and seeing my mother crouched in the corner with her arm out of the socket. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about all of it."
In high school, Elliott was fast and loose with men. "Did I have relationships? I was bonin'," she says. "I was going through a time when all that stuff kept playing in my head, and, eventually, you begin to seal yourself off from anything that reminds you of that situation." Shunning psychiatry, Elliott instead turned to the church for spiritual sustenance and some degree of comfort. "I believe God healed me from a trauma that, for somebody else, would have made them lose their mind."
As for her attitude toward men today, it's strictly an arms-length proposition. "I have learned to be happy with myself," she says. "I'm not saying I'm celibate, but I watch a lot of friends who are unhappy because they feel they have to be with a man, but then they catch them doing whatever. I'm like, I'm happier than ya'll. I've seen so much, that I decided early on that I would never take any sh*t from any man."
Unlike stars like Madonna, who equate sex with power but really pander to the fantasy life of men, Missy's new sexual frankness truly is a form of empowerment, because it's being done on her own terms. When you're Missy's kind of beautiful—the kind that doesn't fit the standard set by mainstream, white America—you can't be co-opted by a music industry that values the commodification of flesh. When Missy raps "Get Ur Freak On," it sounds less like an invitation and more like a command, and you'd better obey.
"I don't trip, because it doesn't have to be about you getting all butterball naked and singing 'Oops!...I Did It Again," says Elliott. "If you've got talent, you just have to do you. If they want to take their clothes off and sell those records, fine—just call me to do a song on your album!"
There's a newfound boldness on Miss E... So Addictive that was only hinted at on Da Real World, a willingness to seize whatever it is that strikes her fancy with blunt bedroom tactics. Check the song titles: "Dog In Heat," "Ex-sta-sy," "Get Ur Freak On," "One Minute Man" (as in "I don't need no...").
"As females, we went through our anger moment," says Elliott. "Then, it was all about 'Where's my money? We don't want no broke dudes.' Then, before that, it was about love. So for me, it was like, dag, all of the old topics are worn out one way or another! I just wanted to cross the border with this album. When was the last time somebody made records like Prince, or Rick James, or Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing?' I wanted to do what everybody else is scared to do."
Miss E... So Addictive shifts the paradigm in other ways. With Supa Dupa Fly, Elliott and her childhood friend/partner-in-rhyme Timothy "Timbaland" Mosely introduced a new vocabulary of beats the way Chuck Berry introduced a new way of playing guitar into rock'n'roll's lexicon 40 years prior. Elliott refers to them as "double beats," and they do have a kind of double-jointed agility about them. Tim made this bass drum skip and skitter over tracks like a fibrillating heartbeat, liberating hip hop from straitjacketed, four-on-the-floor rhythms.
But admiration soon begat emulation, and countless producers began packing their tracks with rubberband beats. Elliott and Tim started complaining in the press about beat thieves pilfering their stuff and even wrote songs about it (Da Real World's "Beat Biters").
Soon, it got to the point where you couldn't read a Mosely interview without him complaining about being robbed of his rhythms. Those protests quickly grew tiresome. A Spin review of Da Real World began with the pungent line: "Enough about Timbaland's goddamn beats already."
"Tim's bitter," says Elliott. "When people come up to him and say, 'That was a hot track you produced,' when he didn't work on it, that's what agitates him. But I realize that, when something is hot, people are gonna embrace it and gravitate to it."
Then Tim and Elliott read a Prince interview that called out the duo for whining, and it rocked their world. "Prince was wondering why we wouldn't just switch our style if we were so upset, and it kind of hurt me and Tim," says Elliott. The two knew they had to lighten up a bit. Timbaland admits to feeling "animosity" toward biters in the beginning, "but now it's all good," he says. "[People biting] is like them sending me cards saying get well soon. I'm flattered." Missy says, "We knew we couldn't just keep barking about it, we had to switch the sh*t up."
Have they ever. Miss E... So Addictive almost completely abandons the old formula in favor of a new palette of sounds: Indian raga, techno, house, old-school funk. The new album contains within its 15 tracks a multitude of musical worlds, all of which are thrown into Elliott and Timbaland's sonic supercollider and spat out in fascinating new ways. The requisite crew of guest stars—Ludacris, Ginuwine, Da Brat, Eve, Method Man, Redman—are on hand, the male rappers providing gender-specific retorts to the females' sexed-up battle cries. "I wanted the guys to represent for the guys," says Elliott. "I wanted to have both sides in there."
Few hip hop artists are as savvy as Elliott when it comes to strategic alliances, and Missy's got a clutch of synergistic projects that should help fatten her royalty statement at the end of the year. For starters, there's "Lady Marmalade," the Labelle cover from the soundtrack to the new Nicole Kidman film Moulin Rouge. The single features Lil' Kim, Mya, and teen Lolitas Pink and Christina Aguilera singing their hearts out. "I ain't even gonna front, those girls can sing," says Elliott. "I think the competition made Pink and Christina both work a little harder."
The remix of "Get Ur Freak On" features 22-year-old pop phenomenon Nelly Furtado, who adds Jamaican-style chants to the already exotic record. "I saw her on MTV, and I knew she was gonna be big," says Elliott. "I wanted to hook that up, but she's incredible. People are gonna trip on that record. It sounds so different from her own sh*t."
Mick Jagger gave her a call recently, too. The Rolling Stones' frontman wanted to talk to her about writing and producing some songs for his upcoming solo album. "I went to this hotel room here in New York, and he played me some of the songs he already has," says Elliott, "and I'm sitting there thinking, Damn, isn't this a bi**h?! I'm in the room with Mick Jagger, and he's playing his songs for me? This sh*t ain't real! I go from talking to Mariah to working with Whitney then leap to Mick Jagger? Who's next?"
In her attempt to reach white kids, classic-rock baby boomers, soccer moms, and whoever else she can snag, Missy's side projects might be misconstrued as the canny chess moves of a crass opportunist. Does she worry about looking like a big sellout? "You've gotta come with the goods. If a joint is wack, I'm not gonna do it. With the Moulin Rouge thing, I felt like they were into the record 100 percent, so I knew it would be handled correctly."
Missy, Act Three, is firing on all pistons, the only way Elliott knows how to do it. Older, wiser, and more willing to expose her real self to a public whose hunger for the new and the novel grows ever more ravenous, Elliott just might reclaim hip hop from the big-pimping poseurs that threaten to bling bling the genre into creative oblivion. The trick, as she is well aware, is to get everyone to listen. "Things have changed, but that's not gonna stop me," says Elliott. "Keeping it real means keeping it real for myself."