Missy Elliott and producer Timbaland in 2004. Photograph: Jon Furniss/ WireImage
Avoiding the radio and MTV, the Virginians tunnelled deep into their imaginations to find genuinely new audios. Elliott describes one memorable day in Virginia Beach’s Master Sound studio:” I was in the booth doing The Rain[ her debut solo single] and I kept hearing:’ I dislike you so much right now !’ And I was like:’ Yo, who is screaming ?’ I’m getting so mad. And Pharrell comes knocking on the door and says:’ I want you to hear something .’ And he plays it and it’s Kelis. Me and Tim were like:’ Man, we wish we had done that record .’ That’s how we pushed each other .”
Missy ” Misdemeanor ” Elliott could do it all- sing, rap, write, make- but what she and
Timbaland were doing was so far out that they needed to prove themselves, first by working on Aaliyah’s 1996 album One in a Million. It was the shape of R& B to come: radical yet irresistible. For her own The Rain( Supa Dupa Fly ), Elliott cooked up a joyfully bizarre video with director Hype Williams to let people know who they were dealing with.” It helped people understand the type of artist that I am: witty, with a fun, comical sense, but futuristic, too .” Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of her.
Elliott recollects receiving calls from
Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson in a single month.” It happened so fast that I’m just now getting a chance to sit back and re-evaluate everything ,” she says.” This year has allowed me to look back over my life and be like:’ Wow .'” When she watches the spectacular video for her 1999 single She’s a Bitch, in which she rises out of the ocean like a bald cyborg, she’s astonished.” I guess:’ Where was my mind at? What space was we in to create records like that ?’ So many moments I look back and wish that I knew what I was believe at the time .” Like a hip-hop Doctor Strange, Elliott was a reality-bender. On hittings such as Get Ur Freak On and Work It she made everything elastic- voice, rhythm, speech, body- until the usual regulations ceased to apply. Both avant-garde and platinum-popular, she revolutionised hip-hop and R& B while also wowing the likes of Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn and Bjork. Her videos with Hype Williams and Dave Meyers were no less game-changing than her records, each one a reinvention. She credits Elektra Records for running with her imagination.” Not once did they say:’ No, you can’t do this .’ I would bring stuff to them and they’d be like:’ Let’s do it .’ The only hour you get pushback is when they realise the budget is a million dollars .” She laughs.” Then they’re like:’ Wait a minute …'”
Simultaneously, she and Timbaland created startling makes for other artists, including Tweet, Melanie B and Destiny’s Child, featuring a 16 -year-old Beyonce.” It wasn’t that Beyonce came in and was loud or’ Look at me, I’m gonna be the superstar ,'” Elliott recollects.” She was very sweet. But when she went in the booth, that’s when I knew .” Beyonce later appeared on Elliott’s 2002 track Nothing Out There for Me.” I said:’ Hey, I want you to rap a little bit .’ And she was like:’ Miss, if I sound crazy, don’t set this out !’ And I said:” Trust me, B, I’m not gonna allow you to sound crazy .’ “Shes gone” in there and now she’s rapping better than me !”
In recent years, critics have emphasised the political impact of Elliott’s work. By radiating pleasure and freedom while upending expectations about race, gender and body image, she was an empowering figure, although she insists that was a byproduct rather than an agenda.” Never, ever once did I think of making a political statement. I did what I did. I didn’t know that it would become that for others later .” She enjoys it, though.” To know that it has been taken that style, I’m happy .”
Then, in 2005, Elliott effectively set her solo career on ice. What happened?” Well, I’m going to be honest, there were a lot of things ,” she says hesitantly. One was overwork. A stranger to holidays, she was always either working on her own music( six albums in eight years) or someone else’s.” I needed to refresh my intellect. Then I got sick, so that was another thing .” In 2008, after three years of chronic fatigue and drastic weight loss, she was diagnosed with
Graves’ disease, a thyroid ailment, and treated with radiation therapy. Even once she was able to resume recording, Elliott’s hiatus between albums became self-perpetuating: the longer she remained away, the harder it was to come back. Without deadlines or financial pressure( she invested wisely ), her perfectionism took over. She disappeared into the studio, racking up several albums’ worth of unreleased material.” You end up building up a trillion records ,” she says.” It’s easier for me to write for other people and not be as critical. I’m very difficult on myself. I’m like:’ Let me see if I can make something better ,’ so you only maintain powering on .”
The overwhelming, instant scrutiny of social media worsened this self-doubt. The beginning of this year,
Cardi B tweeted about nervousnes and Elliott sympathised:” Many people deal with this … i am one … it’s real .” This wasn’t something that rappers discussed publicly in the 90 s.” Anxiety and depression, I’m not gonna lie, I rarely heard that back then ,” she says.” But now I hear it a lot. Before social media you really didn’t know what people thought of you but now it’s so in your face that I think it probably dedicates a lot of artists nervousnes. You have a lot of people coming at you, good or bad .” So she stuck to supporting roles on records by the likes of Ariana Grande, Janet Jackson, the Missy-indebted Lizzo and debut recording artist Michelle Obama: Elliott was the highlight of Obama’s 2016 charity single This Is for My Girls.” I wasn’t gonna say no. Y’know, it’s Michelle Obama. Am I actually gonna be like:’ Nah Michelle, I’m busy !’ She made me feel she was in my family. I almost forgot she was the First Lady .”
Now, eventually, Elliott is “most definitely” ready to take the plunge and release that album, self-doubt be damned.” This time the label is like:’ Knock it off, Missy Misdemeanor Elliott !’ Ha ha !”
The good news is that new music means live reveals. The bad news is that these might have to take the form of a Las Vegas residency because Elliott’s notions may be too ambitious to be portable.” It’s going to be a lot because there’s so much going in my mind ,” she says.” My mind is like a rollercoaster. It’s like an amusement park. Heh heh heh .” At long last, Missyland is reopening for business.
Missy Elliott’s Iconology EP is out now