Missy Elliott's been at the top of our imaginations as of late: not only did she sweep the Superbowl, but is currently writing new music with Timbaland, as well as with JACK U, the EDM supergroup comprised of Diplo and Skrillex. She's been working behind the scenes for years—on production, on guest appearances, and promoting her artist Sharaya J—yet her return as an artist to the frontlines of our parietal lobes is imminent. But Elliott has always been a futurist, first and foremost, and even when she's been out of the spotlight, her specter has never been absent from forward-thinking hip-hop.
On the vanguard 2001 single "Get Ur Freak On," Elliott rapped, "Ain't no stoppin me. Copy written, so don't copy me." But even in a genre that places biters just below ghostwriters, who could resist?
The line of rappers who've taken inspiration from Missy Elliott is long, and never quite quits. While one of Nicki Minaj's signature tics is her alter ego Roman's British accent, Minaj's idol got there first, on "It's Alright," with her R&B group Sista and Craig Mack: "I stuck my fingers in the socket/I blew up like a rocket in the market/I cannot stop it," she raps in a prim, upper-crust London brogue.
That single dropped in '95, on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack, a year before she'd first intone her signature "chika-chika-chik" on Gina Thompson"s "The Things You Do," using her mouth and a high-pitched tweet to mimic the sound of a DJ scratching a record. It was the first inkling that she was inventing her own language, communicating to us through onomatopaeias placed perfectly within sharper bursts of verbal stacatto. She was sing-rapping hooks decades before Future and Drake, wedging her sticky syntax into gooey R&B rubdowns like "Hot Boyz." She presaged rap's embrace of EDM (as well as its dalliances with molly) with Miss E… So Addictive (2001), and with the help of Timbaland, presaged post-Diplo pop globalization with bhangra samples on "Get Ur Freak On" and the like. She dropped the proto-skrrrrt in her breakthrough single "The Rain" with the lyric, "Beep beep/Who got the keys to the Jeep? Vrrrrrm," while painting a minimalist, metaphorical picture of how fast she'd be driving us into the future. Missy skated past every rapper; they were in park, stuck at a red.
When serious space exploration sped up in the 1960s, the cultural fascination with our future peaked with it: a couple of dudes on the moon opened up the world's imagination to what great heights, what unforeseen far-out shit we'd be experiencing 20, 30, 40 years into the future. Here we are: No flying cars but we got iPads and the info superhighway. The future is always better in our imaginations than it ends up being in our realities. Don Delillo wrote that "a word is also a picture of a word." Space is also a picture of our brainspace.
Missy Elliott's capacity to imagine—and, more crucially, enact—a future more dazzling than the one we're likely to see in our lifetimes is one of her most important traits. She conveys possibility, a hope and imagination heretofore unseen, while still being a key figure in Afrofuturism, if not by strict definition then in spirit, innovation, and liberation (from the limitations of the English language, for one). Her compatriots Aaliyah and Timbaland, with whom she shared the moniker "Supa Friends," reinvented pop music in the '90s and early '00s as a space where new, malleable ideas were presented as the only possible aesthetic forward, where music was imagined as though it were crafted in space (or on other planets; even the vocal compression on some of Missy's Supa Dupa Fly cuts makes it sound like she was rapping/singing in an anti-gravity chamber).
The visuals, where we all digested that they wouldn't stand for the same-old, followed suit, gearing the shiny suits and high-contrast glam of the Puffy era up to warp-speed. No suit was shinier than the blown-out garbage bag we got to fisheye in "The Rain" video, in which Missy contorted her round body into jutting angles. Those angles were provocative and sensual at once, a method of exerting her sexual agency without getting cliché with it—because why would a woman so visionary get cliché with it, but also because her position as the sole big-girl ruling pop music for decades (shout out to Adele) meant that she could envision different ways to exist in her own sexuality.
She's been a rumored lesbian for her whole career; doesn't matter either way, but it stands to reason that a patriarchal society would see her as such. She's someone who refused to capitulate to its vision of a desirable woman, who crafted her own means to sexuality. The trash bag was wild, crazy, unique because it was a trash bag—but in a time when bikini tops and miniskirts ruled, the trash bag was wild because it was so subversive. Missy's lipstick was always dark-hued and glossy. She draped challenge in approachability and preternatural coolness. Her edginess was revolutionary but subtle. Her flow directed us to our own conclusions.
I flip my shit
It feels like a good hit
And even if you buy it
Nigga, you can't get smokin into this hay
Nigga, what you got to say?
Izza ba-za-ba zazay
—"They Don't Wanna Fuck With Me," 1997
That first Supa Dupa Fly video's usually the go-to; its Hype Williams sheen was so epoch-defining for both Missy and for hip-hop. But even while looking back, Missy Elliott has looked forward. In 2004, she celebrated old-school hip-hop culture with Under Construction during a time when said culture was experiencing deep anxieties over its unstoppable corporate trajectory. She spent much of that era dressing like an '86 b-girl in Adidas tracksuits and matching kangols, but recontextualized the old school in dystopian futures, linking her own audacity to the essential weirdness of early dudes like Bambaataa. In the video for the Diwali-invoking "Pass That Dutch," Elliott and her crew do Riverdance in a crop circle, beamed upon by a UFO, while another scene shows Elliott in a tiara and sash, winning some kind of beauty pageant while a crowd of white, blonde plastic dolls cheers her on. It's a stark picture of how precisely and handily Missy constructed her own narrative—one in which she commands the future and tops the world.
Image via Getty.