Twenty years ago tomorrow, Missy Elliott released her third album, Miss E ... So Addictive, a curious milestone in the integration of hip-hop and pop music. “I know some of y’all sick of songs y’all be hearing on the radio,” Missy sings on the intro. “So me and Timbaland gon’ give that shit you never heard before.”
Mind you, Timbaland was responsible for half the songs we were hearing on the radio around the turn of the century—“Are You That Somebody?,” “Pony,” “Big Pimpin’,” “We Need a Resolution”—but the point stands: Missy led a peculiar upheaval. Her first couple albums, Supa Dupa Fly and Da Real World, hosted her formative hits “The Rain,” “Sock It 2 Me,” “She’s a Bitch,” and “Hot Boyz.” From Portsmouth, Virginia, Missy was childhood friends with Timbaland. She came up working with R&B stars, including DeVante Swing, Mary J. Blige, and Aaliyah. But Missy’s own breakout songs blended hip-hop and R&B in a revolutionary way. Just a few years earlier, Puffy had split the difference between these genres by putting the rappers and the singers on the songs together; Missy split the difference by incorporating the two genres into herself.
Miss E ... So Addictive marked the commercial peak for Missy, but more importantly she seemed to have perfected a whole new manner of hitmaking. It’s easy to recall the long-gone months when its lead single, “Get Ur Freak On,” was the biggest song in the world. In the moment, it was much harder to summarize the profound newness in every bit of her sound and persona. It wasn’t just the music videos with the glossy costumes and fish-eye lenses. There was a certain boundlessness in her music, unmistakable in its hip-hop signatures but otherwise unrelated to any contemporary agonizing about regions, genres, and technique. “Get Ur Freak On” wasn’t just big, and it wasn’t just mind-blowing. It was exactly the sort of ridiculous song that was never gonna get made by the so-called best rappers alive at the time.
Hip-hop had otherwise gotten so competitive and self-conscious in several corners. By the early 2000s, Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent, Eminem, Outkast, and Kanye West each had something to prove; they lived or died by diss tracks, sales comparisons, and regional distinctions. The genre exempted Missy from this competition for the obvious reasons: She’s a woman; she’s a Southerner; her flows were far too loose and her songwriting was far too frivolous to score well on such uptight assessments. But she was a star, she was avant-garde, and it would’ve been pointless to judge her against anyone else.
It’s even hard to position Missy among her fellow Southerners: Cash Money, Three 6 Mafia, Dungeon Family, Slip-n-Slide, the East Side Boyz, and the Neptunes were making music you’d never heard before too. New York gets an origin story that’s easy to pack into a single sentence: Kool Herc hosts a party in the Bronx. But where do you even begin with the Southerners? It’s such a geographically scattered narrative, and the mainstream account began to take shape only once Missy, Outkast, Ludacris, and Mannie Fresh conquered hip-hop radio in the late 1990s. The South didn’t just have “something to say.” The South had launched a raucous symposium, and everyone rapped in a wild variety of accents and sensibilities. Missy raps and sings with a Tidewater twang, and she collaborated with like-voweled Virginians in Timbaland and Pharrell. But in many ways her music worked against the contemporary regionalism. She assembled Timbaland, Ludacris, Tweet, Ginuwine, Busta Rhymes, and Method Man into a hypermodern eclecticism, unburdened by comparisons and indifferent to the larger stakes, bold for its own sake.
It was easier to attribute the big trends and shifts in pop music to her collaborators, Timbaland and the Neptunes, once they started producing Justin Timberlake on Justified. I don’t mean to discount Timbaland’s own distinct influence in the pop landscape nor his indispensable role in developing Missy’s sound, but Missy carried the day with her voice. It would’ve been easy enough to compare Missy Elliott to Das EFX, given the squirrelly flows and silly wordplay they held in common, but Das EFX was the butt of jokes for most of my childhood, while Missy’s voice had magical properties and inexhaustible charm. The thing is, Virginians—I’m one, too—really do talk like that. “Lick Shots” is just how we sound. (“What you coming ’round here now fo’?!”) By So Addictive, Missy turned her modest twang into a new musical language. Better yet, she made the most of rap stardom without doing the most, as others did, to turn rap stardom into the central obsession of her music. She was overflowing with personality but lacking the narrative overdetermination evident in the songwriting of Jay and Kanye. She was a clever musician, and that was enough to justify her stature and success.
So Addictive was her peak, and though her next few albums extended her stardom with shocking persistence, her musical ubiquity ended too soon. Missy sought treatment for Graves’ disease in the late aughts, and the diagnosis more or less ended her radio run. She took her victory laps in the 2010s on “Nobody’s Perfect” with J. Cole and “WTF (Where They From)” with Pharrell, and in recent years she’s settled into emeritus stature, just releasing one EP in 2019—her first body of work since 2005’s The Cookbook. The new pop landscape seems weirdly resistant to her comeback, despite having internalized every last bit of her exuberance and eclecticism, and especially her synthesis of singing and rapping. But there’s no recreating her voice.