With the release of Missy Elliott's fifth incredible album in six years, This Is Not A Test, there's no doubt that she's become one of hip hop's cultural magnets, turning up in one of the most talked about TV commercials - a Gap ad featuring Madonna, no less - and turning it out in last year's most infamous chorus line with Christina, Britney, and, of course, Madonna.
True school hip hop fans know, however, that Missy's amazing story really begins and ends with the music. And Missy wouldn't have it any other way. Missy Elliott has courageously been willing to stake her reputation on every beat, every scorching R&B groove, on every one of her albums, This Is Not A Test included. She's been willing to up the ante time and time again for countless other cultural 'touchstone' moments where the charismatic superstar has blown our minds. You could sense her adventurousness from her very first video in 1997 for The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), which featured a fearless Missy greeting the world in a hefty bag. Hailed as a masterpiece to this day, MTV even crowned it the 15th greatest video of all time.
And then there are the stats: 17 MTV Award nominations winner of the prestigious Video Of The Year in 2003, 2 Grammy awards, 2 BET awards, and 5 Lady Of Soul/Soul Train Awards. Twice within the past five years Rolling Stone has named her Best Female Hip Hop Artist of the Year, and twice she has ranked as Billboard's #1 year-end female hip hop star. Most recently she's been awarded a 2003 American Music Award for Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Female. The list goes on and on and on, an unprecedented rap/R&B resume capped by the 2X platinum-and-counting 2002 release, Under Construction, which made Missy the best selling female hip hop star of all time (closing in on 12 million units worldwide) and one of the most influential writer/producer/artists in the music business. Add to this her star-studded production credits Whitney, Janet, Christina, Justin Timberlake, and Destiny's Child, among others, and her own executive moniker as CEO of Goldmind Inc., which launched gold-selling R&B star Tweet and you realize Missy Elliott is truly in a league of her own.
What makes her accomplishments truly amazing is that Missy Elliott the superstar is, at the heart of it all, still just the shy little girl from Portsmouth, VA - a survivor of a childhood of domestic violence. Particularly, her father was abusive towards her mother. Missy has not shied away from talking about those painful memories. In fact, she was named spokesperson for Break The Cycle in 2003, an organization dedicated to helping young people break the chain of domestic abuse.
For Missy, music was the escape hatch, her path to achieving the kind of dreams not even she imagined. Ironically, the approach to her fifth album, This Is Not A Test, was to set aside all prior achievements, and free herself of any pre-conceived notions as to what the album should sound like. Her goal, as always, was to make a 'home' in the only place where, as she says, all those trophies and accolades don't matter: the recording studio. 'I'm grateful for every award I have received. They really are like a dream. But the studio is where I feel most comfortable. I realized you can't worry about what you did last year. I said to Timbaland 'Let's just do it.' You have to get in the mind frame where you're not trying to out-do yourself. But I really felt most comfortable approaching this album. The studio is where I find my peace.'
And where, of course, along with her longtime-production partner Timbaland she can wreak the most havoc. This Is Not A Test is no exception. A tightrope walking exclamation point to her first four groundbreaking albums, the disk adds some new moves to Missy's game, including a nod to the kind of '60's black activism (check out the artwork) that paved the way for most of rap's trailblazers. Missy offers up a hip hop remix to the black power movement, threading some socially conscious food-for-thought amongst the album's 14 songs. On the primal anthem Wake Up, for example, featuring Jay-Z, you're witnessing an empowered Missy doing the talking here, floating her message to the masses with her usual flair for deft beats and an incomparable knack for subverting the hip hop grind.
'Hip hop better wake up,' she spits over the sparest of drum cadences. 'I got the Martin Luther King fever,' she continues, outing hip hop's over-ripe code of material one-upmanship: 'If you don't got a gun it's all right/If you make legal money it's all right/If your wheels don't spin if you got to wear them same jeans again/ It's all right/MC's stop the beef let's sell.' Missy says she just might also be indicting herself on the song. 'There's so many different messages in that song. I believe that for black people it was so hard for us to have for so long myself included that when we finally got it we OD'd on it. It was like 'get me that car, get me that chain get me a chain that can cover the whole stage. Oh, you want a car with rims give me rims that spin even when I'm sleeping.' What we forget is that when we leave here we can't take any of that with us. I'm not trying to be Reverend Elliott or something, but I do believe when you reach a certain status in this business, you got to be positive. You have to remember you are a role model.'
Missy also keeps it heartfelt on the album's intro, vibing with Mary J Blige on Baby Girl Interlude. 'That one is so crazy. I actually did it on 9-11. I felt like I was coming out of my character. When I listen to it I think 'that doesn't even sound like me.'' 'My eyes have watered like a preacher who's sinned' declares Missy. 'I didn't stop to think what I was saying. I just wrote. Some pain there. I speak about how people put entertainers on a pedestal but sometimes they can't wait to knock us down.' Missy also invokes her legendary toughness: 'Like a brick wall I'm too hard to break,' adding: 'I'm the realest from the fake.' 'I got some issues with those have copied the formula. Hip hop took from people who rapped about what they saw in the hood. But then there were artists who just came along and masked that. They found out what the formula was and just went with it. It became a game where artists just learned the formula. So now everybody's trying to find out who is real and who's fake. Right now it's all kind of blurry. But the real street cats out there know game when they see it.'
Make no mistake - Missy can still bring the game that brought her to such a pinnacle. Her trademark ciphering an instinctual ability to build characters out of the strangest sounds and atmospherics is in full display on the album. Whether it's the wigged out Pass That Dutch complete with a Bootsy Collins reference and a hyper-surreal timeout, or the staccato roll of Keep It Movin, featuring Jamaican legend Elephant Man, Missy doesn't forget the kind of loose-hinged interplay that made her hip hop's most ingenious sonic maestro. 'I said to myself 'Pass The Dutch' is my hip hop Riverdance. And the Bootsy-voice, well, everybody knows Bootsy and what he meant to our music. As far as Elephant Man goes, well, you can feel what that track was all about. He has a great presence, a great energy.'
It's also no secret that Missy has paid a considerable amount of homage in her career to the 'old school' hip hop that she feels has sometimes been neglected by the younger generation. The new disk also lovingly reflects some past nuggets, particularly on the combustible track Let It Bump. 'It kind of started with that beat from back in the day,' she laughs. 'Let It Bump captures a real simple way to rhyme. Almost like those little balls that would bounce along the songs when you watched cartoons as a kid. It's just that old school feel. Even when I think I get it out of my system I can't stay away. If you got in my car right now there'd probably be some Big Daddy Kane going. Maybe some Salt n' Pepa. I love it.'
A soon-to-be Missy R&B standard, Dats What I'm Talkin' About, featuring R. Kelly brings Missy back to the future with both stars contributing the CD's sultriest vocal performances. Missy also lays out a crunching duet with label mate Fabolous. 'That was fun to do. Just some old school R&B. We're not trying to set any new kind of standard. We're just doing music we hope people will love. You can clean your house to that, maybe make a baby.'
Missy closes the album with the gospel tinged I'm Not Perfect featuring the Clark sisters, ending the 14 song opus on a humbling but uplifting coda. 'Every album I try to do something gospel oriented. I was honored to be in the same room with the Clark Sisters. And the great thing about them is they always bring something to the table.'
One of the main reasons Missy has remained compelling all these years is that she's brave enough to keep her audience guessing. A process that begins with an unspoken pact between her and Timbaland to not worry too much about what each of them is bringing to the table. 'Another reason I called the album 'This Is Not A Test' is because I'm saying 'don't be alarmed' but this record is as real as you can get for a Missy album. Some new treats Timbaland and me pulled out of the hat. We love making music. We realize how fortunate we are to be doing this. We always want to hear something fresh.'