What is the first thing you think of when Missy Elliott’s name is mentioned?
Is it her vast videography of creative music videos? Clever, witty lyrics laced with hard hitting Timbaland beats? Maybe even her Adidas Respect collection, which totally owned the mid-00s alongside Von Dutch trucker hats and baby pink Juicy Couture sweatsuits?
Whatever it is that first comes to mind, from clothing to music, videos to her ultra-feminist vibe, no one can deny her impact over her 20+ year career. She redefined the female rapper in her prime, busting through the hip-hop boys club of the 90s and solidifying her place as a hip hop legend. But with the lack of knowledge some people have of Missy (as seen by many tweets wondering who she even was was after that Superbowl performance with Katy Perry) it got me thinking: Why is Missy’s legacy not as big as it should be? Why is she not widely herald as one of history’s most iconic rappers, and would this be the case if she were male?
Do you think the stereotypical 15-year-old has a clue who Foxy Brown or Da Brat is? Probably not. But he/she sure knows who Nicki Minaj, and (unfortunately) who Iggy Azalea is, not only because they are relevant now, but because the landscape for female rappers has changed over the years, and they now have more power and presence than ever before. Those who came before them also deserve their props, however, and Missy’s unapologetically kick-ass career, which broke down barriers of hip-hop, fashion, feminism and art, has been underrated for too long.
Elliott’s career began in the girl group Fayze (renamed Sista) where she began working with longtime collaborator Tim ‘Timbaland’ Mosley. Her first experience of the music industry was when she wrote and rapped on Raven Symone’s 1993 single ‘That’s What Little Girls Are Made For’ – unfortunately Elliott was cut from the video as she didn’t “fit the image” producers were going for at that time. Although sexism and body shaming is something Elliott frequently encountered (producers and industry insiders told her she needed to change her image or pursue a behind-the-scenes career), she stuck to her guns against bodyshamers and naysayers, letting her talent and creativity speak for itself.
One of the key parts of Missy’s legacy comes from her music videos, which completely changed the landscape of what a hip-hop video is ‘supposed’ to be. We’re first introduced to Missy in one of her most creative videos, the Hype Williams-directed ‘The Rain’. Rapping in an inflated trash bag is just one of its stand-out moments, and it led to a series of iconic follow-ups. From swinging on chandeliers while dressed flawlessly in denim-on-denim in ‘Get Ur Freak On’ to the intergalactic, video game-esque ‘Sock it to Me’ and the Black Barbie vibes of ‘Beep Me 911’ , no concept, theme or output was too experimental for Missy as she explored far beyond the realms of the typical music video.
While Missy’s videos were always showstoppers, they never overshadowed the brilliance of her music, often underrated in terms of just how experimental it was. She embraced house music on the Basement Jaxx remix ‘For My People’, and brought a Bhangra influence to ‘Get Ur Freak On’. She’s never been scared to engage with different musical styles (in recent years she’s shouted out ballroom and Jersey club producers), and always puts the Missy stamp on things with a mix of smart, sex-positive, and witty lyrics. Who else can you imagine rapping about “shaving her chocha,” or being bold enough to support sex work with lyrics like; “Girl, girl, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing / Just make sure you ahead of the game.”
From lyrics about body positivity to co-signing other women in the industry, Missy was and always has been about girl power. She’s collaborated extensively with other women, from the iconic ‘Ladies Night’ with Lil Kim, Left Eye and Da Brat, to tracks with Destiny’s Child, Janet Jackson, Ciara and even Little Mix. While the Little Mix collaboration may not be the strongest track, it showed Missy’s openness to helping new female artists – something she previously did with 702 and Aaliyah.
There’s no better advocate for women’s rights in rap. In a time where the degradation of women in rap music was frequent, Missy burst through the scene with a level of confidence that shocked many. She rejected one minute men, proudly displayed her “cute face / chubby waist / thick legs in shape” and consistently knocked down the bullshit body standards for women. On ‘She’s a Bitch’ – one of the strongest female rap songs/videos ever – she reclaimed a slur and flipped it on its back, complimented by a stark monochromatic video. If there is one thing we’ve learnt about Missy, it’s that she’s never been scared to make a strong statement.
Her talent is not restricted to her own work either, as she’s frequently written and produced tracks for other artists. From co-producing and co-writing almost half of Aaliyah’s classic One In A Million to writing Tweet’s controversial club banger ‘Oops (Oh My)’, Missy has proven herself to versatile in both fields, also lending her skills to Destiny’s Child’s ‘Get On The Bus’, Mariah Carey’s ‘Babydoll’, NSync and Whitney Houston. Many of her best writing/production contributions were done at the height of her solo success, showing her incredible ability to produce hit after hit after hit – often with little credit for her work behind the scenes.
Missy’s talent, strong image and success is reflected in her accolades: six platinum albums, five Grammy wins, and over 30 million albums sold. Yet some still don’t realise the full extent of Missy’s legacy. Why? Maybe it’s because she has taken a lengthy hiatus since her 2005 release The Cookbook. Maybe it’s because women in the industry are often labelled with a sell-by-date – once they aren’t considered relevant any more they’re on the outs, unlike their male counterparts. But she continues to influence her peers and those that followed her, and whether the masses recognise that or not, a select few of us will continue celebrate the weird and wacky legacy of Missy Misdemeanour Elliott.