“Beep. Beep. Who got the keys to the jeep? Vrooom.”
The V8 engine of a Hummer sings as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott swerves into a lane entirely of her own; one that is paved with rapid-fire lyrics, eclectic fashion choices, and a voice that drips with soul whether singing or rapping. The Don of Virginia Beach claimed her stake in both hip-hop and R&B during what many refer to as the “Golden Age” of the ‘90s. But, it was Missy’s ambitious flair that set her apart from her counterparts — both male and female.
While Missy’s contributions to the art of rap are daftly underrated, her influence is recognizable in the faintest of ad-libs and avant-garde optics — much like the pitter-patter of rain which she sang of so adversely. The twentieth anniversary of Missy’s solo debut Supa Dupa Fly this past weekend is a testament to this, and in fact proves just how far-reaching her proverbial stance early on in her career has been.
Whether sporting finger waves or taking us on a kinetic journey of sound, Missy Elliott reveled in her peculiarity. It was the essence of her being that served as a compass as she navigated an industry that was inundated with east coast vs. west coast rap beef. It was her originality and delivery that made us sit up and take notice.
In shunning the norm, Missy not only redefined the sphere of black femininity but also what it means to be a true solo artist. While Lauryn Hill is often credited with ushering in the concept of an all-in one artist who can sing, rap, and produce — Missy was holding those reigns a year prior in 1997. All but one song on Supa Dupa Fly is credited with her songwriting skills, juxtaposing of rapping and singing, and executive production. Missy’s ability to flip between in-your-face bravado to full-on ballad made her an undeniable force to be reckoned with.
For many of us, our fascination with the Misdemeanor began with a shiny, onyx bodysuit ballooning her full figure. It was striking. It was weird. It was monstrous. And, for lack of a better word … it was trash. A trash bag that engulfed Missy’s petite stature as she stood between two swinging pendulums, yet your eyes remained transfixed on her 5’2” frame as she stomped and swayed to a revamp of Ann Peebles’ 1974 track “I Can’t Stand The Rain.”
But nothing could’ve prepare me for “The Rain” video. Everything about Missy moved me: From the erratic dance moves and fisheye camera tricks to cheeky one-liners like “I break up with him before he dump me / To have me, yes you lucky”; we were all simply guests in her afrofuturistic world. An alternative void where a black woman who was scorned by critics for her dark skin, full lips, and curves could amplify these said flaws. And, in turn empower a host of brown and black girls with a figurative “f*ck you” to an industry that had regarded her as too fat to be successful.
Beyond the Michelin Man-inspired look, however, Missy had a sense of ownership over her own uniqueness, a characteristic that many artists of today often convey through eyebrow-raising lyrics, outlandish behavior, or virality of their outlandish behavior the Internet. For Missy, being weird or quirky was simply intuitive. “I was never afraid to be a provocative woman,” the Grammy-award winning singer told Elle as the cover star of their May issue. “I knew I could have on a blow-up suit and still have people talking. It was bold and different.”
Unapologetic and lyrical, Missy’s pen game was her namesake long before her artistry, as she compiled an impressive discography writing for the likes of Aaliyah, SWV, Ginuwine, 702, Total, Gina Thompson and more during the early ‘90s. In fact, at the time, the blossoming 25-year-old strongly resisted going solo after her initial record deal went sour and she was cut from the label.
But, it was under a label imprint with Elektra Records, where she could sign and executive produce artists as well as her own album, that Missy gave in and began recording Supa Dupa Fly. While Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records was bred out of a necessity, Missy negotiated a stake in her sound; a business strategy artists of today like Drake and J. Cole have expounded upon.
Her business acumen aside, Missy’s marketing savvy borders on ingenious. Prior to her solo debut, the Portsmouth native managed to incorporate her signature “hee-hee-hee-hee-haoow” giggle onto every song which she was featured. Her golden touch was undeniable; from her scene-stealing flow on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” and 702’s “Steelo” to SWV’s “Can We,” Missy’s boisterous ad-libs are perhaps only rivaled by King Midas himself, Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Though two decades have come and gone since Missy’s seminal debut, it’d be blasphemous not to regard the songwriter-turned-muse as a game changer in the landscape of music. While Missy’s contribution to hip-hop are often relegated to the fact that she’s one of the best female rappers, her ability to own her individuality, produce cosmic sounds, and understand the value of her artistry is a feat few artists of either gender have yet to accomplish. After a deep listen to Supa Dupa Fly, even twenty years out, it’s clear that the chick from Virginia who got her start writing for six-year-old rapper Raven Symone was holding the keys to the blueprint all along.