Missy Elliott dropped her thrilling new single ‘I’m Better’ this morning, stoking speculation that more than a new album may be finally on the horizon, more than a decade after her last. Claire Lobenfeld asked the iconic rap trailblazer what the future holds.
Missy Elliott is the kind of artist that no one forgets about, even in her absence. From the inventive music videos she’s been releasing since her debut album Supa Dupa Fly dropped in 1997 and the behind-the-scenes work she’s done for artists like Aaliyah, Ciara and Mariah Carey to her production partnership with Timbaland, her influence is always looming throughout rap and R&B.
Later this year, she’ll release a documentary detailing her career. With contributions from people like Pharrell and Busta Rhymes, the film will look at how Missy’s work has changed how we hear rap, R&B and pop music. But just because she’s looking back at her past doesn’t mean she isn’t still looking toward the feature. The release of the trap-infused ‘I’m Better’, a collaboration with her frequent production partner Lamb, signals that she never stops working – and that she can take what’s popular now and make it completely her own.
As the internet put her latest release on repeat, we spoke to her about her enduring legacy, her guest appearance during Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl halftime show and what to expect from her next.
What have you been up to? It’s been almost a year since your last single ‘Pep Rally’.
Always music, that’s pretty much what Missy do: music, all day, all night long. This video took a month. We rehearsed a whole month and I’ve never done that in my whole career. We rehearsed from nine at night until six in the morning, most of the time. I wanted it to look like art instead of just a video. I wanted the dance movement to be challenging. A guy named Sean Bankhead and two other girls [did the choreography]. But since [2015 Pharrell collab] ‘W.T.F.’, all I do is music. Even if y’all never hear it, I am doing music. I probably have at least five, six albums of music, but it’s blackmail music that I would never put out.
Do you think any of that music could be a full-length album?
Oh yeah, I got enough records to make an album, but I would never say a day or time that it would happen because those fans are brutal and they will stone me if I told a date and it didn’t drop on that date. I have learned my lesson from other artists go through that. The element of surprise works for me. It gets a little crazy out there and I don’t wanna get jumped by my fans, so I’m gonna keep it a secret. People don’t understand that things happen behind the scenes. It may be a sample clearance, or anything, so I’d rather just wait.
“I probably have at least five, six albums of music.”
Can you tell me a little bit about the documentary?
It started with ‘W.T.F.’ I was gonna do a little trailer talking about that particular video and then it just started expanding. I was like, “Wow, I’ve done a lot of videos.” There is a generation that may… well, after the Super Bowl, thank god, I’m quite sure they went back and started looking at this new artist. So, it was like, “OK well, it would be great to allow people to hear about the process of me writing and producing.” I’ve been writing and producing for artists since the early ’90s. People may know me as an artist and may not know the songs from other artists that I’ve been behind. It just started evolving and getting bigger and bigger.
Your discography, going back to the beginning with artists like Jodeci and 702, is sort of a mini-history lesson in modern R&B and I’m wondering if you’ve been seeing any of the newer, more experimental artists like Abra or FKA twigs and what you thought about how your influence has really stuck for so long?
I like FKA twigs! Some of my fans put me onto her and I like that. It’s funny because when I’m doing music, and that’s the majority of the time and I’ve said this since my first album, I kinda close myself up so I don’t get a chance to listen much unless somebody brings something to me so visually and sonically I can do something different and not be scared to do it. If I get so engulfed in everything else, then it’s like, “OK, I’m a little scared to do this because that might not be hot right now.” But there are a lot of underground people that I might not know the name of that I be feeling. I like to listen to the underground station when I do get to listen to the radio.
“I kinda keep my circle small because there’s not a lot of people who think crazy or weird like Missy.”
Who else have you been working with?
Timbaland, of course, and then the guy Lamb. I kinda keep my [circle] small because there’s not a lot of people who think crazy or weird like Missy. I’m sure there is, but I haven’t ran across ones that think weird like me. When it comes to working with outside producers, it’s very small.
Tell me a little bit more about Lamb.
I met Lamb maybe eight years ago. He always had something that was different. It was hard to even think that I could run into somebody [with a] mind that could think like mine and his beats were really dirty and he didn’t have much to work, but I could hear that in helping mold him, he’d come up with some crazy stuff. He ended up doing… we started working together and he did Jazmine Sullivan stuff with me, he did Monica music with me, he did Keyshia Cole music with me. He went on to do something on Beyoncé’s album, so he has joints out there. He’s not a newbie, he’s been doing it.
Why has there been such a gap with new music? After something like the Super Bowl, a lot of artists would have dropped right then. How do you keep patient with releasing new music?
I had everybody and their mother telling me it was the perfect time to drop something. Of course you should most definitely take advantage of the moment, but I believe that it has to be right. If you believe that what you can do can be classic or timeless. If you give them greatness, it’ll be worth the wait. It has to feel right for me because I don’t wanna just throw out anything. If it doesn’t work, at least I felt great about it and not felt like I was pressured while knowing it wasn’t right, but made sense to do it right then. Then I’m kicking myself in the ass over and over again.
“If you give them greatness, it’ll be worth the wait.”
What was it about ‘I’m Better’ that made you feel like it was the right track to release at this moment?
It fits in a place of now but still [has] a Missy twist. When I listened to it, I immediately saw something visually. That doesn’t happen all the time, there are videos where that hasn’t happened and there are videos where that has happened. ‘The Rain’ was one of them where I immediately saw, visually, what I could do. After I did [‘I’m Better’], visually it just started coming. Before even the dancers got in rehearsal, [I knew] what movements I wanted them to do because I didn’t want them to hit every beat of the track. I wanted it to be art.
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter.