Song of Myself
When Liz Phair was in the studio recording last year's Whitechocolatespacegg, she looked at her wall calendar one day to find that her producer had scrawled on the agenda, "Be Liz Phair." Okay, she thought to herself--and recounted later to journalists. Does that mean "Be comfortable in your skin" or "Figure out how to re-jerk the prep-school punkers you baited and hooked at 24"? She was dismayed. A similar syndrome seems to have overtaken rapper-singer-producer Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, who has said in recent interviews that she received similar, well-intentioned pep talks while working on her sophomore solo drop Da Real World (The Gold Mind/EastWest).
In 1997 being Missy Elliot meant blowing up like the Michelin Man or the Net stock bubble. She instantly stood out as a proudly supasized, sex-hop goddess who couldn't rap a lick--and that was only half her genius. The other half wasn't her producer-collaborator, Tim "Timbaland" Mosley, though his spry mix of synthesizer rat-tats and stumbling breakbeats gave radio pop its most innovative sonic makeover since grunge. The real gift that this Virginia homegirl brought to the party was her unique vibe.
Missy was laid-back: sexually freewheeling and stoner silly. She wasn't just some rap bizatch adding a femme spin to the classic b-boy stance, and she wasn't looking for a DMX to strap rocks on her neck. She had the keys to the jeep ("beep beep") and a neon trash-bag-styled warm-up suit. And when she invited us along on an SUV spin through the middle-class Newt South, she took women's rap to a coy, cool, and comfortable place. In the music as much as the casual verbiage, she and best pal Timbaland explored the fun and frustrations of gendered interaction, with Tim throwing in blank spaces and vocal grunts where beats should be, and Elliot negotiating these tricky crevasses, riding the anticipation, rolling with the sense of risk. The duo's "big VA" wasn't a pastoral state of arrested development but the familiar environs of Everysuburb, USA.
Unfortunately, that lawnscape is nowhere to be found in Da Real World. Here suburban chill-outs have been replaced by industry power alliances, the big comfy baseball shirts abandoned for high-necked space kimonos, the dog-and-cat beats shooed out by swollen symphonics. The new model finds Missy Elliot's good-natured work ethic pumped up by Elektra's marketing wizards into an extra-large image of the savvy female mogul, the kind of inflation that would make it hard for any performer to stay down-to-earth. And faced with the question of whether to let the audience in on how da real Missy might be adjusting to this new promo angle, our girl takes the easy out. Unlike Phair, who got honest and shared some snapshots of her current incarnation, Elliot opts to skate through her sophomore stress on a series of thin, poll-tested themes. There are formulaic screeds against beat-biters (ouch), gestures toward the Y3K future, and requisite shouts-out for sisterhood woven with an overbold reclamation of the word bitch.
These old tactics might fly if they didn't feel like afterthoughts. For the space-age stuff, Missy could have affected the opacity of Sun Ra, or at least aped Busta Rhymes's mercurial carnality, but a few grunts about the year 3000 don't get her the keys to the mothership (beep-beep). The "bitch" stance seems forced as well--less Y3K than Y1996. (It doesn't so much seize the word back from Snoop Dogg as rassle it from lightweight Meredith Brooks.) And when Lil' Kim schools us, on "Checkin' for You," that she, Missy, and Mary J. Blige are "the rich bee-atches...Y'all got a problem with it, come see me," the flag-on-the-moon air of declaration seems more than a little bizarre. Maybe Kim's and Missy's vision of 3G is a postapocalyptic prison whose handmaids need this particular form of linguistic liberation, but in the here and now, so many hip hoppers and pop stars have dived into that wreck it could be declared a national park site. And let's be honest: You can truss Missy up in Darth Mall-rat dominatrix gear, but she's no bitch. Quite famously, she got where she is on her amiable, can-do attitude.
Da Real World does contain some rewarding tidbits: A toasting cameo by Lady Saw on the lounge-Latin "Mr. DJ" is the album's richest confection, with Tim laying harpsichordlike plucking over sand-block wisps, and getting funky on the Speak & Spell. But sisterly collaborations with Lil' Mo or Elliot protégée Nicole (who presumably showed up to tithe in exchange for future career privileges) are a bore. And the requisite cred-lending cameos by Redman and OutKast's Big Boi have little effect other than to upstage the hostess--not exactly Latifah-style empowerment.
"Three things I hate: girls, women, and bitches," raps Eminem on the indecorous "Busa Rhyme." And by the disc's end, you may well agree. Supposedly "for the women," Da Real World's decipherable messages are weak and cloying. On "All N My Grill," Missy and Nicole wonder aloud, "Why you all in my grill?/Can you pay my bills?/Let me know if you will/'Cause a chick's gotta live," then both proceed to whine, without a shred of "lotta Prada" cheek, "Where's my money?/ Where's my clothes?"
Aaliyah and Da Brat, who showed they could hang tough with Missy on her first album, Supa Dupa Fly, drop by for a complaint rap that gets old fast on "Stickin' Chickens," a chant about guys who make a practice of, well, you can guess what. Even the midtempo "Hot Boyz," which starts with Missy's sexy beckon to some tasty tenderonies, soon gets clingy: "You a hot boy/A rock boy/A fun toy...Can I move in with you?...I'll cook, boy." No hardball playa is gonna throw down his Platinum Visa for that bait and switch.
In our heroine's defense, Elliot does sound like she doubts her own hype and senses that she has rigged her own game against her. She doesn't seem to know how to handle Eminem--does anybody?--and has been quoted in interviews to the effect that his lyrical contributions disturbed her on first exposure. But her solution--to frame "Busa Rhyme" as a battle between her God-fearin' self and Eminem's Slim Shady--is a telling misstep. Miss Demeanor is no match for the sprung lyrical felon, and she can't haw-hee her way to victory over Em lines like "They call me Boogie Knight/The stalker that walks awkward/Stick figure/Dick bigger than Mark Wahlberg."
Faced with the brutal matter-of-facts spewed by the facile Detroit hobgoblin, Missy suggests a bloody death for Shady, offing him not with head-cutting mic skills but by executive decree--by fixing the fight. She can command Eminem to take a dive because she's Missy Elliot. Now she just needs to decide if that's what being Missy Elliot is really all about.
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