FYF Fest 2017 - Day 1
Missy Elliott performs onstage during day 1 of FYF Fest 2017 on July 21, 2017 at Exposition Park in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for FYF)
(Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for FYF)

Music Sermon: Missy Elliott's Underrated Songwriting Genius

With Missy Elliott becoming the first female rapper to be nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame, VIBE analyzes her eloquent, award-winning pen game.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past. 

Since stealing the show from Katy Perry for the most-watched Super Bowl halftime performance ever in 2015, Missy Elliott has been enjoying a renewal, a renaissance, a resurgence, a reinvigoration…all the “re”s. And deservedly so.The Virginia native is one of the most innovative and groundbreaking artists of our time, and now a new generation of fans has joined the old heads in eager anticipation for the musical magic the Supa Dupa Fly one is cooking up in the studio for her new album.

Fans have been giving Missy her proverbial flowers en masse for the last year especially, including a wide-spread lobbying campaign to have her game-changing, mind-bending, budget-breaking videos recognized and celebrated, finally, with the MTV VMA’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

While Missy is indeed a visual storyteller bar-none, her ability to create a story behind the soundboard as a songwriter and producer remains under-acknowledged. Last week, Missy became the first female rapper to be nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If she is one of the six new members inducted in June 2019, she’ll be the third rapper ever to join the ranks, following Jay-Z (2017) and Jermaine Dupri (2018). Eligibility for the honor kicks in 20 years after a songwriter’s first credits, and for the last two decades, Missy has somewhat quietly stockpiled an impressive file of receipts.If you google Missy Elliott’s writing/production discography, you’ll be rewarded with the equivalent of fifteen standard 8 1/2-by-11-sized pages of work. There are titles and projects that fans are familiar with, but also many that would surprise all but die-hard Missy stans. But if you know Missy’s story, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Even though Missy had a previous life as part of the Devante Swing-signed girl group Sista, it was her writing and producing that put her on the map. During her tumultuous time with Swing Mob, she co-wrote and/or produced songs for former Hi-Five frontman Tony Thomspon, child star Jason Weaver, Jodeci’s The Show The After Party The Hotel album and others – sometimes credited, sometimes not.

When she left the collective, her attorney, Louise West, encouraged her to continue pursuing the writing path. That led to behind the scenes work with Bad Boy, including vocal/verse arrangements for “All About the Benjamins.” Sheek shared the story with DJ Cipha Sounds earlier this year of The LOX walking into the studio with Puff as new Bad Boy artists, only to be bossed around by a then-unknown Missy.

“Me, Kiss, and Styles walked in the room and there was this girl in there, and they was listening to that beat... She was asking me (what do you think of this beat); she was talking to me like she knew me. ‘Yo, let me hear you rap to that.’ I’m like, ‘First of all, who are you?’ She’s dancing and sh*t. She’s making beatboxing noises. So, I did my first verse…Styles did something; she was like, ‘Eh.’” Styles’ verse famously did not make the final track, and it was Missy’s call. “Jada did a verse to it. And then she was like, ‘You gonna go here. You gonna go here. Y’all two, you and Kiss, gonna write Puff’s verse.’ I’m like ‘What the f**k?’ Then she just walked off, beatboxing. Later on… that was Missy Elliott…But we didn’t know that was her. She put the whole ‘Benjamins’ together.”

Missy’s energy was off-putting for the young Yonkers rappers, but those who work with her say the innate talent for arrangement is one of her superpowers. Her current A&R at Atlantic Records, Jeffrey Sledge, has worked with artists who are also great writers/producers his entire career, including Q-Tip and R. Kelly, but says of Missy: “She has one of the greatest ears of anyone I know. She’ll listen to playback and point out the smallest thing that no one else would hear; ‘No, we should take that out. This should be different.’ She’s able to quickly figure out what will work for different artists and find the vibe. She’s really an A&R on the low.”

Diddy then tapped Missy for a guest feature on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” remix, resulting in the “He He He Haw” heard ‘round the music world. A star was born. She thanked him publicly over the summer via Instagram, sharing a clip where he also praised her as one of his favorite producers, saying, “As a producer, she has a talent to create music that you feel spiritually and emotionally. And it’s really sexy and sensual, in a sense.” When Diddy says your sh*t is sexy, your sh*t is forreal sexy.


Angelique Miles, the former publishing executive that signed Missy and Timbaland to their deals at Warner Chappell, agrees. “Lyrically she’s witty and she’s relatable, but it really goes back to old school-style songwriting,” Miles says when asked what makes Missy a great creative. “Songwriting today is very literal, and not poetic. Missy’s a poet. ‘Baby you don’t know what you do to me…’ those first lines of “One In a Million” are romantic.”

Miles signed Missy based on the success of “The Things You Do” plus her work with 702’s debut album No Doubt, including “Steelo.” It was an extremely limited body of work to base a deal on, but Miles rolled the dice on both Missy and Timbaland (she signed Timbaland based solely on “Pony,” which wasn’t yet a single), and it paid off. Missy did not yet have a record deal, but she and Tim now had unprecedented admin deals for new writers at the time, allowing them to retain control of their copyright and receive all their royalties on the back end, rather than taking a large advance on the front end. And very soon, there was a lot of money.

Missy told SPIN magazine in 1997, “I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable.”

Miles described it a little more directly: “Huge checks.”With One in a Million, Missy’s career catapulted out of the stratosphere, still without yet having released her own music.

For many, One in a Million is about the pairing of Aaliyah and Timbaland, with Missy there as just part of the Superfriends collective. However, it was Missy and Timbaland as a team that sold Barry Hankerson and Aaliyah on the partnership for her sophomore album. And Missy wrote on almost every single, complimenting Tim’s production with lyrics that felt incredibly familiar – like something you’d said in conversation, or written in your diary - and yet like nothing else in music at the time. In his book The Emperor of Sound, Timbaland described Missy’s writing as in-the-know, juicy, Peyton Place-style storytelling. “You feel like she knows what’s going on behind all of the closed doors, what women say they want, what they really want, and the lengths they’d go through for Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.”

By the time Missy was finally preparing her solo album, she was one-half of the hottest songwriting and production team in music. She and Timbaland were everywhere, and she became legendary for her larger-than-life features and clever, infectious hooks on outside projects. But she was also writing, arranging and/or producing much of what she was featured on.

SWV’s “Can We:” co-writer and co-producer along with Timbaland. Total’s “Trippin:” co-writer and co-producer (she also was an executive producer on the entire Kima, Kisha & Pam album). The massive hit “Lady Marmalade” remake featuring Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim: co-produced with Rockwilder. And that’s only songs she’s featured on in some way. “Missy’s worked with all the top female artists of the last 20 years,” says Sledge. Indeed, the roster runs like a who’s who for the 90s and 00s:  Aaliyah, Mariah, Whitney, Janet, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Monica, Trina, Mary J., Ciara, Fantasia, Jazmine Sullivan, even gospel great Karen Clark Sheard. That’s not including the artists she signed directly to her Goldmind imprint with Elektra Records, Nicole Wray, and Tweet.

You were sometimes hearing Missy and didn’t even realize it. Through Mya’s “My Love is Like…Wo;” through Fantasia’s “Free Yourself;” through Monica’s “So Gone;” through Jazmine Sullivan’s “Need U Bad.” Once you realize she’s behind the track, however, you can pinpoint certain signatures in the vocals.

With her own music, Missy is still described by many who work with her as “shy,” both in and outside of the studio. No one knows exactly how she creates, because she’s never let anyone see her write or record vocals. Not even Timbaland. “No one’s seen it,” says Sledge. “She’ll listen to the track, take it home, and come back with it done. I couldn’t tell you her creative process.”

While not quite pulling the curtain all the way back, Missy’s been sharing snippets and sneak peeks of the new material she’s working on through social media, and often shares stories of the tracks she wrote and produced, both the hits and the lesser-knowns. She’s also happily stepping up to receive her praise and accolades, realizing that this level of relevance at this stage in her career is rare. It’s safe to say the shy, quiet artist is not staying humble for her second act. Keep them receipts coming, Missy!

READ MORE: How Missy Elliott's Music Videos Were Ahead Of Their Time

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25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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VIBE / Nick Rice

10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

NEXT: Intent On Impact, Kiana Lede Is Ready To Leave Her Mark

After learning The Alphabet Song as a little girl, Kiana Lede would always “get in trouble” for singing during class. “My mom was like, ‘why can't you focus?’” she laughs while reminiscing on her career’s formative years. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! Songs are just playing in my head all the time!’”

Whilst sitting in a shoebox-sized room at Midtown Manhattan’s Moxy Hotel on a humid September day, the now- 21-year-old Arizona-bred R&B songbird, actress and pianist speculates that she “may have had ADD.” However, she settles down after taking off her white cowboy boots and flops down on the ivory-clothed bed, demonstrating that her fiery Aries energy can be contained. Cool as a cucumber, Lede shuffles between chewing on banana candies and blowing smoke rings after taking drags from a pen, all while musing about her journey to becoming a Republic Records signee.

“I just grew up singing and doing musical theater, and reading a lot of books, and playing piano way too much in my room by myself,” she says, pushing her big, curly brown hair out of her face. Her expressive green eyes widen as she grins. “It was my thing. Nobody in my family does music, just me.”

After winning Kidz Bop’s 2011 KIDZ Star USA talent contest at 14 (which her mother secretly entered her into), Lede was signed to RCA Records. She was released from her contract and dropped from the label three years later. However, thanks to guidance and friendship from the Grammy-winning production duo Rice N’ Peas, (who’ve worked with G-Eazy, Trevor Jackson, and Bazzi), she released covers of songs such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while working to get her groove back. The latter rendition resulted in Republic Record’s Chairman and CEO Monte Lipman flying her out and signing her to his label.

“I got a second chance, which a lot of people don't get,” she reveals. “So I'm really happy that that all happened. I wouldn't be here right now in this room if that didn't happen.”

Thanks to the new opportunity she was given, Lede’s sound has evolved into something she’s proud of—equal parts soul, R&B and bohemian. As evidenced by the aforementioned ensemble, glimmers of each aesthetic can be found when observing her personal style as well. She released her seven-song EP Selfless in July, which features the bedroom-ready “Show Love” and “Fairplay,” which manages to fit in the mainstream R&B vein while also showcasing her goosebump-inducing vocals. The remix of the latter features MC A$AP Ferg. What pleases her most is that it not only garnered a favorable response from fans, but that those listeners found it so relatable.

“As an artist, it's really nerve-wracking for someone who writes about such personal things all the time,” she says. “Just the fact that it is my story… It's good to know that other people know that there's somebody on their side, and they're not the only ones going through it. A lot of people obviously feel this way, and have been through this same thing that I've been through. So I think that's cool.”

Although she moved to various places as a Navy serviceman’s daughter, Lede claims Phoenix as home. This means she hails from the same stomping grounds as rockers Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks and the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. However, growing up in a mixed race household gave way to tons of sonic exploration outside of the rock-heavy scene.

“My dad's black, and both of my parents are from the East Coast,” she says of her musical and ethnic upbringing (she’s black, Latina and Native American). “[My parents] listened to a lot of R&B. My mom listened to a lot of SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men. I didn't realize I knew the songs until I got older. I played a charity show with T-Boz, and I was like 'why do I know these songs?'” Lede also says her father was a fan of neo-soul and gangsta rap, but she personally believes the early-2000s was the best time for music.

“[That era] influences a lot of my music subconsciously, and also, singer-songwriter stuff,” she continues. “I listen to a lot of early-2000s music because I played piano most of my life. I listened to Sara Bareilles, John Mayer.”

An open book, Lede details some of her struggles with anxiety and depression with the utmost candor. After being dropped from RCA, her trust in people diminished, and she experienced long bouts of depression after being sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. The track that she feels most deeply about is “One Of Them Days,” which tackles these issues head-on.

“When I'm anxious and depressed, it's really hard to be happy,” Lede says. “Most of the time, I can do it, but there are just some days where I literally can't separate the anxiety, and I can't tell anybody why, because I don't really know why myself… I was feeling very odd that day, didn't even know if I could write a song. Hue [Strother], the guy who I wrote the song with, he was like 'I totally get you. Lots of people go through this.’’’

As we’ve observed in headlines recently, mental health and being honest about life’s trickier situations can help someone going through the same thing, and Lede hopes her music provides encouragement to those who are struggling. As for how she’s learning to push through her mental health roadblocks, she meditates, runs, and is an advocate for therapy, especially in Trump’s America, where harrowing news reports dominate the cycle.

Another hallmark of Kiana Lede’s personality is her bleeding heart for others. She cites women of color, sexual assault victims and the homeless youth specifically as individuals she feels most responsible to help, since she is personally connected to all three. While she’s aiming to create a project that helps homeless youth specifically, she’s working hard this holiday season to ensure that they have a place to stay “at least for the night” after horrific wildfires displaced many individuals in California.

“My passion is really people. Music is just a way that I can get to helping people,” she says with a grin. “Helping people emotionally and physically are both very important. I never want to stop helping people. I feel if other people can respect me, and I can respect myself, then I'll be happy. Happiness is all that we strive for.”

Recently, Lede played her first headlining solo show, a one-night event at The Mint in Los Angeles. While she was thrilled to see that the show sold-out, she was even happier to see the faces of her audience members, who she said ‘looked like [her].’ “Mixed girls, brown girls, black girls, gay boys,” she explains over-the-phone. Even though she wasn’t in person to discuss her latest huge accomplishment, you could hear the pride and joy through her voice.

As for the future of her career, she’s looking forward to more acting roles. You may recognize her from the first season of MTV’s Scream, and after her recent Netflix series All About The Washingtons with legendary MC Rev Run was cancelled, she has been “reading for auditions” and is “negotiating” for a role in a film set to shoot in NYC. While her time with the Run-DMC frontman was brief, she says he taught her about the importance of “not compromising your art for money.”

What Kiana Lede is most excited about, of course, is making music. She hopes to work on a new EP and then release an album after that. The ultimate goal is to fully realize the dreams in her personal and professional life, and she assures she’s just getting started.

“I want to be able to look back on my career and think 'man, I really poured my heart into this music, and made music that mattered, and made music that made people feel a certain way, whether it's bad, good, sad, anxious, whatever it may be.’”

READ MORE: NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight

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