Work It

Published on February 3rd, 2015

Alex writes about Missy Elliott, because why not.

On Monday morning, a friend of mine asked me what my favourite moment from the Super Bowl was. There were myriad options of course, because this was one of the better Super Bowls I’ve witnessed. Tom Brady’s final drive, Jermaine Kearse’s ludicrous catch, and about four different perfect throws by Russell Wilson were all in play. But the part that was the most fascinating to me about this Super Bowl was the way the bar I watched it in responded to Missy Elliott.

Now, this group of semi-respectable drunkards reacted in the way they should, and the way the internet proceeded to as well: with unbridled excitement. People cheered, and it was great. (Whether these cheers were out of a sort of drunken nostalgia for the early 2000s or not is certainly a relevant question, but not necessarily one that’s enjoyable to answer.) The response was great, because Missy Elliott is great.

The main thing to take away from Elliott’s performance was how god damn modern all of her songs sounded, which was not surprising given that the best way to describe Missy and Timbaland’s work together has always been to say it’s “ahead of its time.” Saying she and Timbaland have been hot since twenty years ago was initially a boast, but now it’s (almost) true. When Get Ur Freak On started, it became immediately evident that this song could be a hit right now. Kanye West and The Neptunes are the producerial geniuses of hip-hop in the 2000s, but Timbaland’s work in rap is often confusingly forgotten by the casual fan. As with most prime Timbaland productions, nothing else sounds like the combination of sounds present in Get Ur Freak On, because Timbaland and Missy were dedicated to futurism most of the time. When Missy claims she wants some new shit at the beginning of the track, it’s amazing how well her old work fits into her own demands over a decade later.

Following her opener, Elliott played her biggest hit: Work It, a song that remains thoroughly enjoyable and aesthetically interesting. On the album that contains the hit, Under Construction, Elliott started becoming a full-on postmodernist. Instead of fitting in with Timbaland’s dedication to never sampling well-known works, Elliott specifically tried to engage with the past of the music she loved. Work It ends with Elliott doing a call and response over a sample of Bob James’ Take Me to Mardi Gras, which itself was famously sampled by Run-DMC for Peter Piper on Raising Hell, one of the most important hip-hop albums of all time. By engaging with hip-hop’s past – as Elliott does even more in the sampled intro of Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s Request Line – Elliott places herself in the middle of hip-hop’s history while pushing the genre forward with the new music she created within it. Her dedication to Adidas tracksuits and breakdancing should not be underrated. She even makes sure we know there is a DJ present in Work It, slowing things down, flipping them, and reversing these various pieces of music into a new collection of styles. Hip-hop has always been about putting one’s own stamp on what the past has given them, and that might as well describe modern culture as a whole.

The reason Elliott’s music sounded so great Sunday night was because it fits in perfectly with modern music culture. Everything is pastiche now, and we all know this. Uptown Funk is a Morris Day & The Time song, and Katy Perry is releasing Three Six Mafia records as singles. There was a trailer for Jurassic World during the Super Bowl that modernizes our erroneous love of Jurassic Park by injecting Chris Pratt into it. Historically, hip-hop’s biggest contribution to culture is that it slowly allowed this mixing and matching of various genres and ideas to come together, an idea that has unequivocally been accepted by the masses. We weren’t all there in 2002, but Missy Elliott was. She saw where we were headed and beat us all there by over a fucking decade.

Admittedly, Missy Elliott’s discography is not perfect. All of her albums have dead spots, and on their way to becoming the most unique-sounding people in hip-hop, Missy and Timbaland created a lot of stuff that is borderline unlistenable now. Despite sounding great at the time of their respective releases, Elliott’s pre-Miss E… So Addictive work sounds painfully 1990s now, because being incredibly forward-thinking will always end up hurting your first forays into the new world. And Elliott’s lyrics were never great, even if the flows always were. But the work Elliott made that has endured is fascinating in the way it both engaged with the history of hip-hop culture and pushed it forward. The mere fact that she was both a singer and a rapper certainly has something to do with fostering a world where somebody like Drake can be a megastar.

Elliott herself seemed a little surprised by the reaction to her performance on Sunday, and I think justifiably so. I assume she expected things to go well, but in a twelve-minute set that featured dancing sharks, a faux-collapsing floor, a flying Katy Perry, and probably a billion other cool things I have already forgotten, Missy Elliott seems to be the most talked about moment of the show. Which is cool. Elliott is at a point now where she could cameo at the end of a modern artist’s video, not unlike Elliott put DMC in the end of Gossip Folks, but we should never forget why she was there in the first place. Perry was kind enough to bring Elliott onto the biggest stage with her, and it reminded us all that we miss having Elliott up there. Her appearance wasn’t lip service to history in as much as a moment of recognition for somebody that earned such things. Elliott is likely going to finally get to release a new album off of this reaction, and I can’t imagine how this theoretical record’s existence will make pop culture worse. At her best, Missy Elliott made media that predicted where we would be a decade from now, and if this particular throwback gives us another chance to look forward, we should probably be enthused to take it.

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