Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Bitch Session

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's Real World

By Franklin Soults

JULY 5, 1999:  It should be stone-cold obvious that the average young female pop fan in this country is far better off if she doesn't identify herself as a bitch. I mean, it shouldn't take much theoretical acumen to realize that a convoluted psycho-social pathology like internalized misogyny isn't good for anyone's mental health.

Think again. Rapper/producer/singer and all-around hip-hop mogul Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott isn't interested in theory, and there's nothing at all wrong with her mental acumen. The lead single from her new album is called "She's a Bitch," a jittery rap set to a kind of dark, mechanized tango in which the performer wears the putdown with pride: "See I got more cheese/So back on up while I roll up my sleeve." She dares call herself the b-word because she lives in the real world -- or, as her new album title puts it, Da Real World (The Gold Mind/EastWest), a place where nothing is stone-cold obvious at all and theory gets whupped upside the head if it don't move out the way.

Take any African-American community where the mess of the real world is still felt -- perhaps, the one in Portsmouth, Virginia, that nurtured Missy Elliott and her long-time friend and collaborator, Timbaland. In these communities, convoluted psycho-social pathologies have taken such a toll on youthful gender relations that what seems like internalized misogyny can actually work as a defense mechanism -- beat 'em by joining 'em. In fact, though "She's a Bitch" is really just a series of standard boasts, Da Real World's underpinning theme is the intensity and variability of those hyped-up gender relations, from the nothing-going-on-but-the-rent 'tude of "All n my Grill" and gold digging of "Hot Boyz" to the jealous-girl rage of "You Don't Know" (directed at the other woman) and "Stickin' Chickens" (at her lyin'-ass man). In this context, it's probably safe to say that the braggadocio of "She's a Bitch" sounds to many young black women a little the way the Ramones' "Judy Is a Punk" must have sounded to the white bohemian fringe, or Ice Cube's "The Nigga Ya Love To Hate" to hardcore hip-hop heads -- like a raw, liberating challenge to the linguistic propriety that keeps us all in our proper places.

Yet in most of the white communities that are home to the majority of average young female pop fans, order still rules. If you watched MTV's All Request Live during the end of May and the beginning of June, you saw and heard those white girls deciding to decline Missy's reclamation of the curse word. Day after day, the song would receive a marginal special mention -- a young girl announcing to the camera or sending in an e-mail about how she's a bitch too and proud of it -- while the majority of the requesters demanded the perfectly healthy pop comforts of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. I know I'm just talking metaphors here, but even before the rapper's new album came out last week, the single had dropped off the Billboard 100 entirely.

Of course, the single was a hit of sorts, and it got props in major and minor hip-hop spots, from the Source to my favorite Friday-night college-radio rap show. But if Missy's minor misstep in judging her whole audience was far from fatal, it was crucial nonetheless. For starters, it was the first time this creative dynamo had ever made a move that didn't simultaneously broaden her base and strengthen her roots. After being "discovered" in 1992 by a member of the R&B group Jodeci and spending three years in the business establishing her entrepreneurial independence, she started churning out hits for other artists with accelerating regularity. By the time she turned 25, in 1997, and cut her smash debut album, Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind/EastWest), her financial independence was already secured by paychecks from the likes of Aaliyah, Ginuwine, SWV, and many others -- a roster that continues to grow, especially under the auspices of her own Elektra-distributed label, the Gold Mind.

In turn, those royalty checks may have been partly responsible for the remarkable chances that Elliott and Timbaland took on Supa Dupa Fly, a slow, simmering, profoundly spare album (think about it) that bridged hip-hop and pop by stretching the sensibilities of each camp toward a literal no man's land. In the loping funk and hook-laden choruses of unstoppable cuts like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Sock It 2 Me," the radio was forced to give it up to a newcomer whose tracks were both looser and more finely layered than any rap that usually reaches the airwaves. Yet precisely because it was a woman at the helm, the expression of these "soft" sounds and their attendant gat-free, hedonistic lyrics didn't seem to damage Missy's street cred -- if anything, the streets were drawn a little bit closer to her sound and vision (and a lot closer to Timbaland's beats).

It hardly seems a coincidence, then, that the only real comparison to Missy in the two years since Supa Dupa Fly has been another woman, Lauryn Hill. With her soulful, wide-ranging production and her masterful blend of rap and R&B, Hill's 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Columbia), is rightly credited for instilling a sense of possibility in hip-hop at least as large as that which Supa Dupa Fly threw down. The difference is that Lauryn not only escaped the constraints of hardcore rap, she largely escaped hip-hop itself -- not the form (complaints about her "flow" are for purist prigs), but that elusive sense of belonging to a community of disparate artists talking to one another across their recordings, and how that acts as some kind of mirror of the community from which they all came. There's nothing necessarily wrong with Hill's move, but it's one reason nothing on her album is anywhere as fun or sexy or, yes, communal as Elliott's musical question "Beep beep/Who's got the keys to the Jeep?"

On the other hand, Hill has also freed herself from the responsibility of pledging allegiance to her community every time out, a responsibility that weighs down Da Real World in ways it barely touched Supa Dupa Fly, from the generic hardcore album title on down. Likewise, Timbaland, Missy's heretofore unfailing right-hand man, often overloads his sophisticated brand of gritty/friendly funk. Instead of playing Curtis Mayfield trying to imitate James Brown with a light buzz on, he slathers on the usual pompous minor-key fantasias so beloved by the hardcore rap clique.

Not that Timbaland waterlogs the whole project. The entire middle section sports solid effects alleviating the gloom, like the sitar-like licks of the soul jam "You Don't Know" and the electro-beats of "Smooth Chick" running hippity-skippity like a video game at one level too fast to handle. Then there's Lady Saw's guest toasting on "Mr. D.J.," a coda that jacks up the track a notch or three as some pseudo-Sicilian mandolin plays counterpoint against staccato strings. In fact, extended codas are a major feature of the album, part of a technique that Timbaland and Elliott seem to be calling "the matrix." After draining a track of all conceivable juice, they jack it up for another go-round, sometimes with a completely new beat attached -- a trick that's most startling on the Eminem feature "Busa Rhyme." Not that this particular number needs it, the guest shot is so startling and outrageous in itself. As is his wont, Eminem vents his spleen with a misogynistic fervor that makes the debate over "Bitch" seem an absurd trifle, saving his sentiments from utter contemptibility by the sheer force of his psychotic imagination and the hint of self-condemnation hidden in his spew ("I'm not a commodity; I'm an oddity"), sort of like a hip-hop Quentin Tarantino (or is that redundant?). Even so, his rap was so outrageous that part of the track was scrambled just before release -- the lines where he walks through the airport and hits a "fucking pregnant bitch in the stomach" with his luggage. It takes Missy Elliott almost the whole rest of the album to win back your complete attention.

Take Emimem's besting of Missy as a sign not of her weakness but of her incredible strength at helping to bring on the so-called hip-hop renaissance -- easily the best time for hip-hop albums since the late '80s. The irony is, that renaissance means a return to the one-shot unpredictability of a form that has always been among the most communally driven in pop music, so that Missy can rule one year, Lauryn Hill the next, and a whiteboy freakazoid like Eminem after that. There are manifold reasons why few hip-hop artists are dependable beacons of creativity while the movement itself burns on so brightly, but perhaps the most inspiring is the mere fact that the form is so damn hard to catch and hold, to do right again and again.

That doesn't mean individual artists don't still lead the pack: for all her subjugation to hardcore formulas this time out, Missy proves she does. In his Source interview, Timbaland said that Missy balked at performing any of the slow romantic numbers she writes so well for others, but at the album's close, she slips in a haunting ode to obsession, "Can't Resist." It's a pure shot of slow-burn R&B, the closest thing on the album to the free-form invention of Supa Dupa Fly, and it's followed by a short tribute to God that's as tender and humble as these things ever get. Together, they're little winks letting us know the score. This time, she's caught up in the game, but our supergirl is still ready at a second's notice to take off up, up and away.


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