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28 Aug 2019 09:52
Missy Elliot at the 2019 MTV VMA Awards where she received the Video Vanguard Award (Lucas Jackson/ Reuters)
It has been 14 years since Missy Elliott released an original collection of music. Every now and then, since her last album, The Cookbook, was released in 2005, she has refreshed our memories by giving us singles such as Where They From and collaborations with the likes of Ciara, J Cole, Janet Jackson, Ariana Grande, Pharrell Williams and Lizzo.
But features here and there weren’t enough.
Last week Friday Missy heeded the call from fans and released Iconology, a five-track EP that she promised would take listeners back “to a time when music just felt good and made us want to dance”. Iconology is an effort to cement the artist’s status as an icon.
In 1997 Missy introduced us to her style of end rhyme and her dactylic pentameter flow on tracks such as Sock it 2 Me in which she rapped “Move along pro with the backstroke/ My hormones jumpin’ like a disco/ I be poppin’ mess like some Crisco/ All you gotta say is where Missy go”. Twenty-two years later and she remains committed to this formula as can be heard in the opening track of the EP, Throw it Back, with raps like, “Booty, booty clap (Clap)/ Flyin’ ‘cross the map (Map)/ Lambo on the block (Block)/ Lookin’ like a snack”. Later in the song she quotes a lyric from her 2002 track Work It, saying “Flip it and reverse it, stupid with the verses” — a move that further goes to prove that her old fits in with her new.
This classic Missy vibe then trickles into Cool Of f and Dripdemeanour, with an update that goes with the times. In the same way Migos was able to make a hit hook from repeating “Versace” 18 times, Missy repeats “Do it, do it, do it, do it/ Get it, get it, get it, get it” and manages to come out with something catchy. Setting the vibe of these tracks apart from today’s trap music is the experimental sonic aesthetic of the beats. They are filled with the distorted basslines and frenetic production that Timbaland has been known to employ when working with Missy.
Although her use of end rhymes seems straightforward, the wit, similes and metaphors that she manages to fit into the simple rhyme scheme using elementary diction is genius. What is interesting about Missy keeping the same energy with regard to her rhyming and flow is that the dactylic pentameter flow that she has been using since 1997 has recently been dubbed the “Migos flow”. So on the first listen Iconology sounds like trap. But this categorisation flies out of the window when this EP is cross-referenced with her older records.
Perhaps the similarity between Missy’s style and that which has been popularised by trap is proof that instead of being a legacy act, her music has an omnipresence about it. Her work, through which she has managed to stay ahead of the curve, lives within the plane of nostalgia while having contemporary relevance.
By the time the EP winds down to the last two tracks — a trap-like love ballad and its a capella reprise — the ear has become so accustomed to Missy’s braggart nasal rap voice that it takes a second to recognise her singing. Soon thereafter Iconology comes to a disappointing end, a sentiment that could be attributed to the entire project being only 15 minutes long. Perhaps the familiarity of the work should also be considered in what makes it fall short. In contrast to the trait that pop culture critics such as Rolling Stone have attached to Missy — for her work in widening the look, sound and gender dynamics of hip-hop — Iconology does not push boundaries.
And why now after a 14 year intermission? Perhaps it’s a means to fully own her moment in the sun given that she has received many an honour in 2019. Maybe Iconology is a means to reassert herself as the queen of weird because, unlike the era when Missy made her debut, the current hip-hop scene is not short of quirky women with out-of-the-box visuals and ideas. There’s Doja Cat, Tierra Whack, Rico Nasty, Lizzo, Noname, Cardi B and Princess Nokia — women who were all inspired by Missy.
As proof of her icon status, Missy Elliott has become “the first” in various instances in 2019. She was the first woman rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She then received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, becoming the first woman in hip-hop to be given such status. Then earlier this week Missy became the first woman in the rap game to receive the Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards.
This award recognises musicians who have made indelible marks in music and music videos. What makes this award unlike the other awards of the annual ceremony is that it isn’t an annual award. Some of its past recipients include David Bowie, Madonna, George Michael, Kanye West, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé and Rihanna. The award was complemented by a pop-up exhibition in honour of Missy’s offerings to the music channel. Titled Museum of Missy, the interactive exhibition showcased the artist’s music videos, including how they came to be, mostly through the collaboration between Missy, producer Timbaland, director Hype Williams and stylist June Ambrose.
Considering how Missy’s visuals, since 1997, were always ahead of their time regarding how to conceptualise music through videos, the award is long overdue. Throughout her two-decade career she has married her simple but layered lyrics with avant-garde and Afrofuturistic costumes, makeup, set designs, visual effects, choreography and storylines to create an aesthetic that can still be referenced today. As Cardi B said when presenting Missy with the Vanguard award this week, “Everybody has copied from Missy Elliott, even me.”
This is not just in the popular examples such as The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), She’s a Bitch and Sock it 2 Me, in which Missy is portrayed as literally being out of this world. It’s even in Get Ur Freak On, a song that many perceive to be citing sex. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the video presents us a Missy with superhuman abilities. This alludes to her being alienated in the industry. Instead of fitting in or shying away from the spotlight, the lyrics encouraged outliers like herself to embrace the things that subjected them to labels such as “freak”.
Read more from Zaza Hlalethwa
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