Unlike rappers such as Jay-Z and DMX who’ve climbed the charts with their gritty street reportage, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott has ascended to hip-hop stardom by keeping it surreal. With her wheezy, off-kilter giggle, cyberspace-influenced videos, and futuristic beats, Elliott is the heir not to eighties gangsta rappers like N.W.A. or Ice-T but to the twenty-first-century funk of Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton.
The recently released Da Real World (Gold Mind/Elektra) is Elliott’s first album since her 1997 debut. That record, Supa Dupa Fly, was so inventive that the worlds of hip-hop and R&B are still playing catch-up with it. Produced by Elliott’s longtime friend and collaborator Timbaland (a.k.a. Tim Mosley), Supa Dupa Fly merged slowed-down drum ‘n’ bass, R&B, and doo-wop into a sublime, hybrid hip-hop. The record’s clever use of samples reimagined their sources – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” transformed the lo-fi raindrop sound effects of Ann Peebles’s soul hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain” into a hypnotic, dub-inspired matrix – making an uncreative hook-snatcher like Puff Daddy seem like a one-trick pony.
Supa Dupa Fly, which went multiplatinum, established the sonic template for pop music in the late nineties. Just as producer Teddy Riley united hip-hop and smoothed-out soul in the late eighties to create the sound called New Jack Swing, so did Elliott and Timbaland create a kind of mutant urban music that rendered both R&B’s bump-’n’-grind mentality and hip-hop’s cash-obsessed player ethos obsolete.
Elliott’s persona – a weed-smoking, take-no-shit-from-men, unpretentious around-the-way girl – was refreshing in a pop landscape dominated by folkie naïfs like Jewel, hip-hop harlots like Foxy Brown, and pseudo-feminist poets like Alanis Morissette. A record-label owner (The Gold Mind, Inc., is distributed through Elektra Records) and prolific songwriter (she’s written hits for Jodeci, Aaliyah, and Ginuwine), Elliott proved that she could be assured and independent without fitting into the protest-rap mold of Queen Latifah or Sister Souljah.
But it was Elliott’s presence on MTV that was truly revolutionary. For the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Elliott was outfitted in an inflated black-rubber suit that transformed her into a kind of psychedelic Michelin man. The video created a new archetype for women in hip-hop, one that allowed for humor, self-parody, and bigger bodies. Elliott told interviewers that the suit was just a tossed-off idea, not a cultural statement. But her funky embrace of her weight made the gushy self-love of a Rosie O’Donnell (whom, interestingly enough, Elliott thanks in the liner notes of her new album) seem embarrassingly facile.
If you’ve turned on the radio anytime since Elliott’s debut, you’ve no doubt heard pop hits that sound like they could have been lifted straight from Supa Dupa Fly: the sonic buzzes and burrs of TLC’s “Silly Ho,” the stop-start beats of BLACKstreet’s “Girlfriend/Boyfriend,” and the arrhythmic rim shots of Blaque’s “808.” Elliott and Timbaland have been hearing their imitators, too. Da Real World is full of put-downs directed at those who steal the duo’s sound. As songs like “Beat Biters” demonstrate, it’s Elliott’s turn to acknowledge her eminence over pop-music-dom: “I’m sick of ya’ll fake Timbaland beat bitin’,” Missy warns. Though this is a cyclical exercise in hip-hop, Missy’s beats back up her boasts: Da Real World is chockablock with song structures so strange and intricate that they force the listener to do a kind of aural double take.
Whereas on Supa Dupa Fly Timbaland created hook-laden pop, Da Real World’s dark, orchestral sound has a far-less-certain place on the radio and the charts. And Timbaland has slowed the beats to the point where they are positively laconic. But the far-far-afield soundscapes of Da Real World place the Elliott-Timbaland team in the distinguished company of hip-hop futurists like Kool Keith and Public Enemy’s noise terrorists the Bomb Squad.
“You Don’t Know” opens with a hypnotizing sitar sample, but then, as if a dark cloud is cast over the music, the song is nearly overwhelmed with ominous, roiling string arrangements. “Busa Rhyme,” a collaboration with rapper Eminem, starts out with a belching tuba sample, but midway through the song some truly bizarre chanting (a hip-hop channeling of the Jolly Green Giant’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum”) takes over, plunging the affair into a rough-and-rugged Jamaican-style dance-hall anthem complete with machine-gun-like snares.
Elliott’s unambiguous, often confrontational lyrics mesh perfectly with Timbaland’s dark-side funk. On “Checkin’ for You,” the rapper dares onlookers to challenge her choice of lover for the night. “I don’t give a fuck about what they say / They can call me a freak … I just want to take him home, then turn him out,” she forcefully raps. “Stickin’ Chicken” skillfully turns the tables on an unfaithful partner, while on “You Don’t Know,” Elliott assumes the foul-mouthedness of rappers like Lil’ Kim to make an obscenely compelling work of her own.
Da Real World falters only when Elliott cedes control to guest artists. Hip-hop collaborations (from De La Soul and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Buddy” to Lil’ Kim and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Crush on You”) once offered artists a chance to create a compelling interplay in the studio. Today, such collaborations seem like carefully market-researched concoctions. Da Real World’s guest spots (excluding Redman, with whom Elliott seems to be genuinely having fun) from the likes of ascendent rapper Juvenile and OutKast’s Big Boi are fruitless, phoned-in-sounding affairs.
And Elliott’s quest to transform the word bitch from misogynist put-down to triumphant postfeminist slang (Da Real World was originally titled She’s a Bitch, and Elliott trumpets her bitchiness in nearly every song) is a strangely earthbound task for a rapper who’s more at home exploring fantasy and science fiction than delving into the reality of the streets. But Da Real World’s tripped-out hip-hop refuses to be overshadowed by the album’s gender politics. Like that of George Clinton, her funk-tastic forebear who made the previously unthinkable (Mothership) connection among the divergent worlds of sixties psychedelia, Motown soul, and Beatlesque pop, Elliott’s genre-bending sensibility will reach far into the next millennium.