Music

As the VMAs honor Missy Elliott, her triumphant return reminds us of who she is as an artist

From a pop-up museum to a new project to a Vanguard Award to the 18th anniversary of losing Aaliyah, this weekend is an emotional roller coaster

If hip-hop is to be viewed as a vibrant, beating heart, Melissa “Missy Misdemeanor” Elliott is assuredly one of its major arteries. Albeit one that has lain dormant for the better part of the past two decades — but now, almost suddenly, is back at the forefront of the culture, headlined by her Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at Monday’s 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The honor makes the Portsmouth, Virginia, native just the fourth rapper (behind LL Cool J in 1997, The Beastie Boys in 1998 and Kanye West in 2015) and the first woman from the annals of hip-hop to land the endowment. This follows a weekend that will undoubtedly be an emotional roller coaster for the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame neophyte.

There was her pop-up museum near Lower Manhattan that sold out in 60 seconds. Then Elliott released her new Iconology EP, the singer, rapper, songwriter and Renaissance woman’s first project since 2005’s The Cookbook. Merged in between those and Monday night’s hyperanticipated performance at the VMAs came the 18th anniversary of her close friend Aaliyah’s tragic death. For Elliott, the weekend represented a reemergence, rebirth and reminder of who she is, what she means and what she’s been forced to grow beyond.

“[I want my work to show] where black folks are from,” she told The New Yorker in 1997, “and where we’re going.” Twenty-two years later, Elliott’s done just that. But it’s how she did it that’s manifest itself as the real epic.

Elliott’s VMAs honor is a long time coming. Fans have, for years, demanded that Elliott be given her roses. When speaking of the simultaneous emphasis on the detail in her music videos such as “Gossip Folks,” “Hot Boyz” or “Lose Control,” the forward-thinking sound of her art — thanks largely to Timbaland, her deep-rooted collaborator — and the influence sprouting from them both, one would be hard-pressed to find the rap lineage of many acts more impactful than Elliott’s genius. She is, without question, a bastion of creativity and innovation, a conductor of camaraderie among women and an augur of style. Her fingerprints are spread wide across the genre’s equally diverse palette from parts of Young Thug’s eccentricity, Lizzo’s unrivaled confidence and Tyler, the Creator’s visual risks.

The sound, charisma and cultural liberation she’s championed is tattooed in history. This makes her a worthy recipient of MTV’s version of a lifetime achievement award.

“We give our music a futuristic feel,” she said at the outset of her career. “I don’t make music or videos for 1997 — I do it for the year 2000.”

In hindsight, even that quote sounds like Elliott being humble. Watching her newest video, “Throw It Back,” while not remembering how the entire story began to write itself more than a quarter-century ago is an impractical act of self-deprecation. It started with her, Timbaland and the group Sista being signed by Jodeci’s DeVante in 1992. By 1995, with Sista disbanded, Elliott and Timbaland were in full force unleashing their brand of production and songwriting into an industry that wasn’t yet ready for them as solo stars but embraced their individual qualities as collaborators. The duo became the ’90s iteration of Ashford & Simpson — most notably their work with SWV, 702, Ginuwine and on Aaliyah’s One in a Million album. Yet, Elliott’s 1996 appearance on Gina Thompson’s “Things You Do (Remix),” a definitive rhythm and blues and hip-hop collaboration in a decade chock-full of them, is the line-in-the-sand moment that opened doors Elliott admitted she wasn’t intentionally looking for. (“People think I did this for the money, but I was comfortable just writing for people,” Elliott told SPIN. “And I mean really comfortable.”) Elliott’s viability as a solo act became in demand. After a bidding war that included Bad Boys’ Sean “Puffy” Combs and others, Elliott signed with Sylvia Rhone and Elektra Records in the summer of 1996. The deal gave her control of a soon-to-be aptly titled subsidiary, Goldmind Records.

Missy Elliott performs “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” to pay tribute to Video Vanguard Award winner Hype Williams.

Photo by KMazur/WireImage

Her 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly was a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed effort that sold 129,000 copies in its first week — the highest for a female rapper at the time. Fly, recorded in a week of marathon recording sessions during the spring of 1997, was an amalgamation of rap, R&B, soul, dance and sensuality. Hip-hop remained mired in its somber phase after the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. The combination of Elliott and Timbaland — like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Nas and DJ Premier or Large Professor, or OutKast and Organized Noize before them — proved monumental. They were defibrillators to a genre in desperate need of fresh faces who brought with them a jolt of excitement, positivity and ingenuity. Her videos were quirky homages to ’90s culture, from video games to the fashion. They often blended a dizzying array of colors, dance sequences and sonic vibrations that placed Elliott on a different plateau from her peers — male or female. The same could be said over the course of the next decade as she released more albums, including 1999’s Da Real World and 2002’s Under Construction.

Timbaland and Missy Elliott perform at LeSUTRA Sparkling Liqueur launch at Fontainebleau Miami Beach in Florida on Sept. 1, 2012.

Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic

Elliott asserted and operated confidently under the gaze of individuality, both musically and physically. She cut her teeth in an era with women such as Lil’ Kim, Adina Howard, Foxy Brown and Trina, all of whom expressed sexual liberation in a field that was widely known to be male-dominated territory. She expressed vulnerabilities in the same era alongside Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah. Elliott understood that, as a full-figured black woman, her appearance — and, more importantly, her confidence in her appearance — would speak volumes. And it did. The charming magnetism she carried was the seed she planted in generations to follow; they stake claim and pride in how their bodies look and never suppress their innermost intimate and sexual desires.

“You either gotta be light-skinned or have long hair [to satisfy a teenage boy’s idea of a vide-ho],” she said. “People might not like me hopping around [before “Supa Dupa Fly”]. [But] you wouldn’t see me in one of those model magazines unless it was, like, Healthy Woman. But I’m cool.”

How she carried herself is in part why the museum in New York was constructed this weekend as a 360-degree experience. Every part of Elliott’s legacy was on display, including a manicure bar, the chance to try on her trademark garbage bag outfit from “The Rain” video, social media activation through photo installations, a litany of her music video catalog and the opportunity to relax in the Supa Dupa Fly Lounge.

“Missy Elliott is a creative genius whose contribution to music and pop culture can be felt across generations,” said Elliott’s manager, Mona Scott-Young. “The fans deserve and the world is ready for a museum that celebrates Missy Elliot and her iconic, record-breaking career.”

Missy Elliott receiving her VMAs honor just a day after the 18th anniversary of Aaliyah’s death is, if nothing else, poetic. Aaliyah (left) and Elliott are seen here in 1998.

Yet, for every accolade Elliott’s amassed, it’s impossible to tell her story, completely that is, without mentioning the void that is Aaliyah. Between the mid-’90s and early 2000s, Elliott, Aaliyah, Timbaland and Ginuwine (appropriately nicknamed the “Supa Friends”) produced hit records like an assembly line. Perhaps fate, perhaps destiny or perhaps coincidence, Elliott receiving her VMAs honor just a day after the 18th anniversary of Aaliyah’s tragic death is, if nothing else, poetic. The famed then-22-year-old singer, along with eight others, died Aug. 25, 2001, in a plane crash in the Bahamas shortly after the completion of her “Rock the Boat” video.

“Her death was a huge shock to me,” Elliott wrote in 2002 of the singer and actress she called her “little sister.” “It’s only in the last month I’m coming to accept it a little. I’ve been having a lot of dreams about her.”

“The thing that bothers me the most about [Aaliyah’s death] is we [had] just got in an argument,” Timbaland said in 2011. “I never really got to say I’m sorry.”

And last year, Elliott tweeted, “Aaliyah (Babygirl) I can only imagine how great you would be today winning oscars & creating sick music & still setting fashion trends!”

Aaliyah’s physical being has been gone nearly as long as she was here. Losing Aaliyah undoubtedly altered the course of Elliott’s career, and it’s equally fair and emotionally futile to ponder how differently her calling would be had the tragedy never happened. There’s a security blanketlike comfort Elliott brought Aaliyah and, likewise, Aaliyah provided Elliott. Without the “Try Again” singer, a phase of Elliott’s career sits eternally incomplete.

The extent to which Aaliyah’s spirit rested on Elliott’s mind and will rest on her acceptance speech and performance at Monday night’s VMAs is anyone’s guess. A personal journey playing itself out on a very public platform. But it could factor powerfully into a weekend that’s been in the making for nearly 15 years.

The return of Missy Elliott coincides with a benchmark week in rap that featured the reunion of famed group Little Brother with their potential Grammy-nominated project in May the Lord Watch, Rapsody’s new black women-inspired LP Eve, Raphael Saadiq’s dark cautionary tale of addiction in Jimmy Lee and Jeezy’s Def Jam swan song in TM104: The Legend of the Snowman. Even in a crowded field of releases and high-profile names, Elliott finds herself standing alone.

Iconology isn’t a full-length body of work more than it is an appetizer at the very end of happy hour. A project that ends almost as quickly as it begins. It is, though, a necessary ingredient in a week and weekend very few saw coming even a month ago. Elliott may never fully return to making music — and that’s fine. The sound, charisma and cultural liberation she’s championed are tattooed in history, making her a worthy recipient of MTV’s version of a lifetime achievement award. There’s an emotional trigger, a serene peacefulness, in watching Elliott appreciate the love too.

“There’s that saying, ‘God gave you talent, and if you don’t use it, he’ll take it away from you.’ And I always said, ‘I don’t want God to come down and take my talents away,’ ” she said. “So, by using all these talents and being successful in all of them, I’ve always got something to fall back on.”

Promise fulfilled. Summer officially ends Sept. 23, but the week leading into Labor Day is unofficially considered the season’s curtain call. In an equinox dubbed by Megan Thee Stallion as “hot girl summer,” ending with Elliott perched atop the proverbial mountain, a titan who embodied that very independence, fearlessness and joy long before it became a hashtag isn’t just fitting. It’s how her story was supposed to play out all along.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.