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."