Growing up in Virginia in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a magical time because the very best artists and producers had roots in the Commonwealth and were making it big. D’Angelo, Timbaland and Magoo, Pharrell & the Neptunes, the Clipse, Jodeci’s Devante Swing and Mr. Dalvin—all crucial in creating the sounds that dominated black music from 1993 to 2003. But it was Portsmouth’s Melissa “Missy” Elliott, the lone woman in that bumper crop of talent who carved a path for women during that time, and still does today.
Like looking at the rings of a tree to tell its age, you can extract a slice of Missy Elliott’s discography and precisely tell where I was in life when the song came out. “Lose Control” lines up with my college years, when making class and going to sweatbox parties were the norm. “Take Away” brings back memories of the junior year of high school, when black girls everywhere were still grieving Aaliyah’s death. “The Rain,” off of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly, calls up the carefree days of middle school watching The Box, mimicking the herky-jerk movements of Elliott in a Hefty bag. And even if Missy’s own songs don’t follow you, her production credits will. Her résumé is long and deep with both her own hits and those she has written for others.
Setting the stage
By the time Missy dropped her first album, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, she had already racked up a slew of songwriting credits and guest appearances. Her work with artists like Jodeci and Aaliyah, and the unique sound she created with collaboration partner Timbaland, meant that she had the bona fides to be successful out of the gate. Still, she didn’t fit the mold of a typical R&B singer or hip-hop act in the late 90s.
In a 2012 interview on Sway’s Universe, she describes why her debut as a solo artist was so groundbreaking. “At that time, you know everybody was in the little bathing suits and stuff, and you had the big girl come in this trash bag,” she said. “Everybody had the good Indian weaves and here I come with the fingerwaves with the black gel, so I was just totally the opposite, but I think it gave it some type of balance.”
Missy was everything that typical women in hip-hop and R&B were not: she was big, brown, and her style was femme but not oversexualized. Not only did she look fundamentally different from everyone in the market, she also sounded unlike anything else. She spoke about her debut in a 1997 news segment with MTV’s Kurt Loder this way: “The melodies are odd, you know, and we kind of make it alternative at the same time. So it’s got like a futuristic feel and an alternative feel to it.”
She wore her weirdness as armor, and her “otherness” made it work. Missy operated in a structurally different way than music of her contemporaries by creating a new language, both spoken (her ad libs alone are indecipherably cool) and visual (see: her personal style, her dance moves, every element of her videos).
A scroll through her Instagram will give you just a taste of how many hearts, minds, and ears she’s reached through her innovative genius. She highlights her work with SWV, Monica, Fantasia, Ciara, as well as dispenses thoughtful advice with only a Sharpie and lined journal paper. Missy’s popularity has only grown bigger since her performance at the 2015 Super Bowl. Now, she’s tapped to star in its Halftime commercials. Many people (rightly) point to artists like Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill as seminal figures whose art helped them explore their selfhood. But Missy Elliott has served as a secret fairy godmother, waving her wand of talent and production skills over all of hip-hop and R&B, constantly innovating to create sounds that are both fresh, strange, and soulful.
Missy showing up as her authentic self as a solo artist served as a blueprint for other women that came after her; for big girls, for girls who want to dance, girls with talent whose femininity is not coquettish or doe-eyed. Without Missy, we don’t get acts like H.E.R. or Syd or JunglePussy who are able to present their versions of black womanhood in hip-hop so effortlessly.
In this era of movements that actively work to center black people and people of color, women, and queer folks, Missy’s work feels like a prediction for where we are culturally today. Her commitment to working with and uplifting other women of color in her work is the embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic. Her ethos of leaning into her otherness to innovate, instead of denying it, is the same spirit that permeates the creative work of duo The Black Joy Mixtape or operations like political consulting firm Three Point Strategies.
Missy Elliott is a time-traveler who modeled the creative future and laid the groundwork for the artists that came after her.
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