The Mischievous Fabulism Of Missy Elliott


The first thing you hear is a sigh. Make no mistake: this is not a marker of stress or lassitude. It’s a blissed-out sigh, a sista smoked out, stroked out, and here to lace you with an intergalactic eargasm. This is the sigh of a woman who’s going to make your mind melt for the next few minutes of your life. This is the sigh that kicks off one of the most audacious musical careers in recent memory. The melody is ‘The Rain’; the maestro-in-chief is Missy Elliott.

The first time I heard this song was in 1997. I was in the 10th grade at the time, an oddball kid with a proclivity for plastering my notebooks with images of Da Brat, Toni Braxton, Tyra Banks, TLC and the blessed Children of Destiny (although we all know that Destiny has only ever had room for one Child). I had seen Missy mean-mugging on the pages of Word Up, Right On! and Vibe, often flanked by Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Timbaland and the bad gyals of Total. I had seen Missy steal every scene in videos by SWV and 702 (for whom she was writing and producing at the time). Whenever I saw Missy Elliott on TV, or heard her ‘hee-hee-hee-hee-haw’ on the radio, I thought, I want more of her – but I was unprepared for ‘The Rain’ and its accompanying video. It was the audiovisual equivalent of smoking primo chamba on a breezy summer’s night (if you don’t know what chamba is, Google is your friend. If you do know what chamba is and have enjoyed it, mabruk. You are what Malawians call a baaad mutha- eh-eh, shut your mouth).

Missy Elliott has always embodied oodles and noodles of flavour without ever compromising on inventiveness, bawdiness or straight-up badassery. If one was to describe Missy’s musicality, one would reach for references as far-ranging as the rago-isms of Roxanne Shanté, the science-fictionality of Sun Ra and the raunch of Redd Foxx, the fabulist novels of Italo Calvino and Octavia Butler, the punani-on-wax playfulness of Millie Jackson and Betty Davis (if they all got freaky with an Afro-futurist Fritz Lang and the cast of Looney Tunes). But therein lies the challenge of quantifying singularity: it’s only ever measurable by its own standards. Missy Elliott is a genius because the riddim she rocks to is a crystalline representation of her own interiority and no-one else’s.

Consider this: who else can conjure up a world in which their face is covered with flies and make that shit look as fly as she did in her ‘Work It’ video? Who else can create a scene where a slave literally slaps the white out of a slave owner until the slave owner’s horrified ass is transfigured into that of a black man in the same video? Who else can write songs where the following lyrics are said with a straight face?

‘He got that magic stick that make my little pussy quiver/ Juices runnin’ like a river slowly down my kitty litter.’

‘Call before you come, I need to shave my chocha/ You do or you don't or you will or won't ya?/ Go downtown and eat it like a vulture.’

‘I called him Mr. Young One/ Mr. Young One had a big ding-dong/ Balls the size of ping-pong/ I had him souped like won-ton.’

‘I hit you with the one, two, whammy/ You no tooth granny, with a hole in her panties.’

‘I told him, Gimme cash to fix my weave/ And I don't want no excuses 'bout your baby mommy/ Cause your child support money don't fix my weave/ And you know n***a please me no fuck for free.’

All of this is to say nothing of the bed of sound on which Missy lays her melodies. Even though Timbaland is frequently credited as the sole architect of said sound, it has always been a co-production between him and Misdemeanour. In Missy’s vision of Tomorrowland, stylistic tics are coaxed out by mellifluous harmonies courtesy of Tweet, Meelah Williams or Nicole Wray: elephants blow their trunks, Japanese incantations intermingle with Hindu chants, British jungle beats are transfused with child-like clapping games and the sound of crickets, vibrators, orgiastic squeals, helicopters and UFOs. In Missy’s world, mischievous absurdism is laced with both slyness and seriousness lending the result a tap-your-feet-and-move-your-ass-with-the-quickness exuberance.

In 1997, Missy Elliott foretold the future and even though it’s been over two decades since her debut, we’re still struggling to catch up to her Afro-cyborgian kühle. As they say in Maori, Mauruuru koe mo te ngahau mutungakore.

Misdemeanour, long may you keep on winning and winning and winning.

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© Diriye Osman. All rights reserved.