As a songwriter for artists like Aaliyah and Jodeci, Missy Elliott spent years working behind the scenes of the music industry. And when she finally recorded her own album, she didn't exactly leap into the spotlight: she's the third vocalist to appear on her 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, after Busta Rhymes and Da Brat. And until her latest album, The Cookbook, credit for nearly everything she did had to be given equally to her producer and childhood friend Tim Mosley, aka Timbaland.
"Me without Tim is like Jamaicans with no curry," she rapped in 2002, and the two seemed so well matched that it was almost impossible to imagine them apart. Merging futurist beats that sounded like P-Funk as interpreted by Kraftwerk with a global vision of pop music broad enough to encompass bhangra and bluegrass, Timbaland redefined the rap landscape in the late 90s. He pioneered the age of the superstar hip-hop producer, helping to create a class of sonic architects who often seem more important than the rappers they work with. Clipse would be unbearable without the Neptunes, as many of the B-list MCs in the Wu-Tang Clan turned out to be without RZA. And there was once a time when conventional wisdom had it that Dr. Dre was propping up Eminem, a claim that sounds less absurd the more Eminem relies on his own lousy production.
But on Elliott's 2003 album, This Is Not a Test!, her relationship with Timbaland seemed shakier as he shifted toward an extremely minimalist style on songs like "Pass That Dutch." He contributes only two tracks to The Cookbook, and they're not the defining ones on the album--they're solid but not particularly intense or surprising, featuring vocal samples woven around saxophones and thumping bass.
Elliott uses Timbaland's absence as an opportunity--she's returned to the rich blend of R & B and hip-hop that earned her an early hit with "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" in 1997. This time, though, she's not doing it on Timbaland's terms: working with the Neptunes, "Crazy in Love" producer Rich Harrison, contemporary gospel songwriter Warryn Campbell, and others, she's pushed herself in new directions. She's also opened up lyrically, and is willing to be more vulnerable and autobiographical than she's ever been before.
Elliott has charisma and storytelling skills to burn. She favors simple rhymes and couplets, but can be fearlessly and hilariously inventive, comparing herself to "bacon, eggs, toast, butter," spitting weird rhymes like "With my upper hand / The fans call me Dapper Dan," sliding from dialect to dialect, and twisting language into endlessly entertaining shapes: she's successfully built a chorus out of rhyming "izzy izzy ahh" with "blizzy blizzy blah," and on The Cookbook she contorts "ears" to rhyme with "underwears" by shifting into a thick southern accent. Her best couplets perfectly embody old-school economy and rhythm: "I used to dress B-boy, now I dress girly / Wake up real early with my braids looking curly."
As an R & B singer, she's at home whisper-singing on a verse or belting out a big gospel-inflected chorus. Timbaland's stuttery, synthetic R & B tracks were an essential part of 2001's Miss E . . . So Addictive, and wistful songs like "Back in the Day" helped create a soulful mood on 2002's Under Construction. But her soul numbers often felt grafted onto her albums. "It's Real," a sweet love song on This Is Not a Test!, fell awkwardly between a pair of club bangers, making the two styles feel like opposing forces instead of parts of a single vision. Since "The Rain," most of Elliott's singles have been hip-hop instead of R & B anthems--and the number of R & B tracks had diminished steadily since So Addictive.
On The Cookbook, Elliott's R & B songwriting is on equal footing with her rap skills, emphasizing hooks and melodies as well as rhymes. On "Irresistible Delicious," she's both rapper and chanteuse in a bit of sly sexual role play with Slick Rick, whose cartoonish style provides a nice counterpoint to her slinky vocals. The monogamy ode "4 My Man" features vocals by Fantasia Barrino and slow raps by Elliott over the dreamy sound of a harp. It's about a happy relationship, but more than once she undercuts a romantic theme with a few barbs. On "Meltdown" she expounds on the delights of a new lover, but not before taking jabs at the old one, rapping "Every time we boned I had to fake an orgasm," and cooing "My ex-boyfriend had to go, he didn't know how to work that magic stick."
The mood of those tracks hints at a larger shift Elliott makes on the album. Much of her writing has been personal, but only within broad themes: dancing, sex, being a super-dope rapper. Her songwriting has always seemed deliberately intended to be universal, so it's something of a surprise to hear her shift into straightforward autobiography on "My Struggles":
When I was young, my pops throw rocks
Always shit-talked till my moms called the cops
I couldn't wait till I was nice and grown
Sick of daddy's mouth till six in the morn'
Earlier this year Elliott said she was planning to make a movie about her life a la 8 Mile, though she was reportedly adamant about not starring in it. (But Missy, that's the whole point!) That verse in "My Struggles" taps into some of Eminem's realism and naked anger--and her delivery even has a hint of his nasal vocal style.
If confessional's not your style, well, The Cookbook doesn't lack for party anthems: "Lose Control," which Elliott produced, is a summons to the dance floor built around samples from a pair of 80s electro tracks, Cybotron's "Clear" and Hot Streak's "Bodywork." The Neptunes' beat for "On & On" superficially resembles a Timbaland track, but the whimsy in its synthetic bubble-popping sound is all Pharrell. It's a great hip-hop single, but it's the only song on the album that recalls Elliott's previous hits. This Is Not a Test! was the first Missy Elliott album that remotely felt like a retread, and throughout The Cookbook she's taking pains to avoid that criticism.
Elliott's collaborations with Timbaland were so fruitful because they were equal partnerships: her laissez-faire rap style played against the brutal precision of his beats. The quintessential Missy-Timba moment is a break on "Get Ur Freak On": the beat drops out, Missy yells "Holla," and the beat returns with a booming urgency. That stop-start dynamic was tense, complex, and delightful, but an album filled with Timbaland imitators would've been sure to fail. The songs on The Cookbook are more conventional, but their relative smoothness shouldn't be mistaken for blandness--she's looser, more protean, and willing to reveal more Missy than ever.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Warwick Saint, Jemal Countess/Wireimage.com.