When Missy Elliott danced provocatively in a trash bag, her body moving like a cross between a lava lamp and the Michelin Man, for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” music video back in 1997, most of the female rappers blowing up on MTV were forced to use sex to sell or being put in outfits that dialed down their blackness so they could be more palatable to white audiences. The latter is something Missy directly parodies later on in the cutting edge visual, when she wears a straight wig. She would later admit: “Fake hair, fake music. We wanted to use the video to make fun of the way record companies try to make black women look white.”
By wearing that giant plastic suit, Missy brilliantly subverted the male gaze, freeing a whole generation of female rappers to push creative boundaries rather than their sexuality. The way she continued to experiment with bold alien-like looks and dance sequences, which blurred the line between the street and the avant-garde, practically made her the closest thing hip-hop had to an iconoclast like David Bowie.
The risk-taking music, even though it didn’t always work, was never anything less than interesting, with creative muse Timbaland providing her with beats that took the bombast of the ’80s and meshed it with bass lines that sounded like they had come straight from the future. Missy’s playful lyricism and commitment to being outlandish (yeah, she ruled the charts with songs about spitting in people’s faces) directly inspired a whole generation of hip-hop, and you could argue that the existential nuttiness of Tierra Whack, the hyper animated goofiness of Nicki Minaj, and the inspiring body positivity bops of Lizzo, would never have existed without Missy Elliott first kicking down the door.
Missy Elliott cemented her position as a legend a long time ago, with classic records like Supa Dupa Fly and This Is Not a Test! now just part of the furniture. And this backdrop makes reviewing the iconic rapper’s new EP ICONOLOGY, her first proper release since 2005’s The Cookbook, such a difficult task — unfortunately the music here fails to live up to her legend.
It’s almost impossible in rap, a genre that seems to take an evolutionary musical leap every six months, to stay away for nearly 15 years (FYI: Missy’s absence from the music industry was driven by hyperthyroidism disorder Graves’ disease) and come back and still push boundaries. And the music here suggests Missy Elliott is now only capable of referencing former glories and chasing modern trends rather than doing something truly unique and setting the trends.
“DripDemeanor” has discount store SZA vocals from guest Sum1 while Missy’s rapping sounds a little lethargic. Her turn of phrase is a little dusty, with bars like “He wanna taste of my goodies/ He say it taste like butterscotch” feeling dated and not saying anything that’s particularly witty or clever — it sounds like a failed comeback single from 2006 and a return to that era’s empty brand of sexualized R&B.
“Why I Still Love You” is a reminder that Missy isn’t just a rapper, but also a prolific R&B ghostwriter, who used to work with SWV, Aaliyah and Total. But the song’s melodic line meanders and doesn’t really land, while the lyrics, which are filled with empty gangster platitudes (at one point, Missy boasts: “Don’t play with me ’cause baby, I’m ’bout that life”), just aren’t very good. Missy is a better rapper than singer, and this sounds like a reference track for another artist.
Things are a lot more interesting with “Cool Off,” with the waves of Miami bass and Missy’s stop-start flow both fascinating to observe at times. But her trademark nutty turn of phrase is missing, and it feels like she’s run out of things to say, something punctuated by her repeating the line “four, feel like JAY-Z” over and over. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that doesn’t feel finished.
This EP’s one high point is “Throw It Back,” with the ticking hi-hats and heavy bass of the head-nodding beat inspiring Missy to spit clever bars that remind us why she’s one of the greats. She talks up her own legend (“I raised all these babies, call me Katherine Jackson!”) and pioneering visuals (“I got so many VMAS I could live on the moon”) with a cheekiness that’s impossible not to smile along to, even if the references to R&B singer Tweet and Heavy D feel a little outdated. Yet the song is also a reminder that there’s nothing introspective on this EP. You won’t come away with any sense of what kind of person Missy Elliott has grown into during that 15 year hiatus. We know she’s convinced of her legendary status, but that’s about it, and this feels like a missed opportunity to connect with people on a more emotional level. Nor is there a potent social or political message underpinning this music like there used to be, and where Missy used to attack body standards, it would have been interesting to see her make a comment on ageism in hip hop, particularly from the perspective of a woman in her late forties.
Where Missy Elliott goes from here will be interesting. This EP feels more like a test to see what kind of sound her fans most want to hear more than anything else, a means of judging her capability of going away and dialling up what works into a more cohesive LP. But there’s a greater sense that Missy Elliott doesn’t need to. She’s done more than enough for hip-hop culture, and if her new music continues to just retread old ground then it could do more damage than good; one shudders to think of her evolving into an Eminem-style cautionary tale.
Missy has more than earned the right to do whatever she wants, but the music here, which is primarily designed to take us on a trip down memory lane rather than innovate, feels like a missed opportunity from one of rap’s biggest risk-takers.