Listening to Missy

Thank you all for your comments on my last post – I was delighted to discover that some of you share my appreciation for Missy Elliott.

As I mentioned, I’ve been listening to Missy Elliott lots in recent weeks and today I want to share some of my observations on her music and reflect on just why it’s so good.

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Missy Elliot’s music is fun. From segments where she just talks to sound effects and vocal effects in her songs, her work is full of surprises that catch you out and make you laugh. The cartoon scenes she creates and unexpected noises remind me of notes I wrote to my girlfriends as a teenager; they’re the sonic equivalent of those felt-tip-pen drawings and glittery stickers. I love the interlude before TOYS where she is paparazzi’d in a sex shop, and the interlude before I’M REALLY REALLY HOT where she is singing in an old-timey rag-time song, which ends abruptly “Yo, drop the beat”. That last example makes the self-aggrandizing and gloriously boastful flavour of I’M REALLY REALLY HOT all the more of a jolt… it’s comedy genius.

You can see humour in all her videos. Who else could make a princess in her tower look so robotic and jerky, so threatening and so cool? I love Missy’s golden plastic clad princess robot in BEEP ME 911, twitching and static. Anyone who can work that much gown with that much swagger deserves props in my book.

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The thing underpinning both music and comedy is timing. Missy Elliott’s little inserts – like in PASS THAT DUTCH *sound effect*”who touched my car alarm?” – happen completely on beat

…because Missy Elliott has rhythm.

I read somewhere that her creative process involves listening to the beats first, finding the mood of the song, then writing. This is the exact opposite way of how I write songs. I sit and write down my words then try to work out a passable accompaniment on my accordion; for me it’s all about the words. But in Missy Elliott’s process, it’s as much about the sounds of the words as their semantic meaning. The whole texture of each Missy track – the pictures made by the interactions of the lyrics with the sounds and the beats – is what to look at if you’re seeking meaning.

In CAN’T STOP she has an amazing way of rhyming words, exaggerating and slurring them… every line rises up at the end; the vowels are dragged out and drawn out and decadent. The massive wall of brass orchestra and beats moves in time with her lyrics. She’s not simply supplying a vocal that moves over the top of the music, but thumping along in the heart of the sound, forcing it all forward with her powerful lungs. It’s a sonic celebration of physical love.

You used to talk that kinky sh*t up in my earrrs
And you would buy me pink pretty under-wearrrs
And I would moan cause you would make me feel nice
And you would make me feel like makin love twice

Missy Elliott’s music is powerful.

I love that before she was a solo artist, Missy was already writing songs for stars like Mariah Carey and that she was producing records and artists, and already pretty wise to the structure of the music industry and the workings of a recording studio. I feel like you can hear that in her music; she’s in there tinkering with the sound, she knows how she’s being recorded. Her knowledge of music production puts an enormous amount of power in her hands when it comes to controlling her sound. She’s authoring her sound and her image and this is magnificent.

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This confidence comes through in songs like GOSSIP FOLKS – her musical riposte to rumours spread about her in the tabloids.

When I pull up in my whip
Bitches wanna talk sh*t
I’m driving I’m glad and I’m styling
in these muthaf*ck*s eyes did you see it?
I’m gripping these curbs
Skuur, did ya heard
I love em, my fellas, my furs
I fly like a bird

The video is set in a school where bullies reign supreme. The scrunchy delivery of the words, the acid, swear-peppered lines, and the tense beats convey some good righteous anger. (If you are a massive Missy Nerd like me you might enjoy this video filmed behind the scenes while that video was being made.) It’s decisive, controlled, and brilliantly indignant – just like Missy Elliott’s faces in the video.

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Missy Elliott does the best boasting in her music – and rightly so. She has built an amazing career for herself as an artist and producer. She negotiated the first contract of its kind with a record label – one in which she is still allowed to produce records for other artists. And she has sold over 30 million records; 6 of her albums are certified platinum (including one album – UNDER CONSTRUCTION – that went double platinum) and she has been awarded 5 Grammy awards for her imaginative music videos. Part of my feminist vision for a better world involves more boasting from ladies. And even better if it can come with a put-down for the forces of evil that will get in a woman’s way when she is out there doing her thing.

Tabloids, I don’t care, it’s irrelevant, I’m heaven sent
Now watch how I do this sh*t

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But in spite of personal achievements and classic lines like “I’m too cool for you anyway” Missy Elliott’s music evokes a strong sense of community and self reflection. I love the heartfelt addresses in UNDER CONSTRUCTION where she addresses her own imperfections and talks about how we are all a work in progress, and the announcement at the end of SUPA DUPA FLY thanking everyone – and especially God – for their help and support with her album.

Since she started making records, Missy Elliott has mostly worked with Timothy Mosley, AKA Timbaland, in an important collaboration that has produced some of the most interesting and exciting music in Hip Hop. Frequent and affectionate references to this relationship pop up in Missy Elliott’s lyrics, but its richness is also evident in the music itself.

Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep, vroom
I’m driving to the beach
Top down, loud sounds, see my peeps
Give them pounds, now look who it be
It be me me me and Timothy

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Missy Elliott’s music includes some of the most danceable stuff I’ve ever heard. Music that makes you want to shake, sweat, dance, jiggle, bounce and move your booty like nothing on this earth. Lots of people make good beats and indeed Timbaland has made amazing and memorable beats for lots of other artists. But Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s collaboration is special because the beats and the lyrics work so harmoniously together. They seem to be able to go to a lot of places in that collaboration, as though the sounds in the beats and the lyrics that Missy produces have a sonic symbiosis.

Me and Timbaland, ooh, we sang a jangle
We so tight that you get our styles tangled

To take just one album, UNDER CONSTRUCTION includes a huge range of different textures. There is a deep, Missy-sample humming loop under BRING THE PAIN; the sound is bassy, feminine, melancholic and soft. But on WORK IT, the rhythm lopes along with a host of twangy synthetic keyboard sounds to which Missy Elliott brings a playful lyric, full of physical fun and a brilliant use of a trumpeting elephant. SLIDE has a squelching, dirty, sparse sound while PUSSYCAT is all soft keyboards and ’90s handclaps slowed down for a more sensual mood.

To conclude, Missy Elliott writes and sings about being a woman in a really full way. From the pain in MY STRUGGLES which references her difficult early childhood to the pornographic glee of MELTDOWN to the confidant MC-ing style on PASS THAT DUTCH to the humour and mischief of TOYS to the lyrical talents on WORK IT to her confrontational stance in songs like GOSSIP FOLKS or BITCH, she is able to cover it all with extraordinary talent, mischief and swagger.

If mega stars are people we aspire to emulate, poster images for our walls, examples for our daughters, sisters cousins and nieces, and comrades to cheer us on in our daily struggles then Missy Elliott is the best mega star I can think of. Her message is one of working hard, following your creative instincts, finding your own drum and beating it, building a business empire that allows you to flourish and take care of the people you love, speaking truthfully, trying to be a good person and not being scared to stand up for yourself.

Thanks for coming with me on my Missy Elliott adventure, normal blogging will be back soon.

Until then, I am yours in NEW CREATIVE INFLUENCES.

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3 Responses to Listening to Missy

  1. mark stanley says:

    I don’t wish to prolong the Missy obsession (believe me, breakfast to ‘Get your freak on’ is taking its toll!)

    …but surely you can’t wrap this up without mentioning all the colours she works with in her videos?

    Great couple of posts by the way, and am loving all the dancing in the house at the mo 🙂
    Mxxx

    • Funny you should say that, I have been thinking about Missy’s videos and their colours and wondering if I can invent a fitting KNITSONIK colourwork tribute…

  2. sweetea says:

    Girl, I could read about your admiration of Missy ALL DAY LONG! Lovin’ it! Knitters can love lots of things besides fiber arts.

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