If there’s one female rap artist who has maintained an unapologetic dedication to authenticity and personal vision, it’s Missy Elliott.
Although some members of the younger generation seemed to be unaware of the legendary MC, producer, singer, and songwriter until her 2015 Super Bowl performance with Katy Perry, Elliott has been instrumental to the evolving narrative of hip-hop.
Following six years off the air, Hip Hop Honors will return to VH1 with an all-female showcase intended to “applaud the women groundbreakers and innovators who led a movement and rose to the top of a male-dominated genre to make their voices heard.” In addition to Elliott, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Peppa will be honored. The recognition and accolades for Elliott are more than deserved. She is a five-time Grammy winner with record sales amounting to over 30 million albums worldwide. Notably, she is currently the only female rapper to have all six albums reach RIAA platinum certified.
Elliott’s success has never relied on chasing trends. Her longevity is based upon her resistance, even outright refusal to adhere to narrow expectations. She fashions bravado out of the weird, surreal, cartoonish, and avant-garde.
From the very beginning of her career as a solo rapper, Elliott has utilized unforgettable visuals that embrace a brand of femininity and sensuality that dismiss the male gaze. Who can forget Elliott’s striking video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” the lead single from her 1997 debut album? The video contains all of the traits of a classic 90s hip-hop video, from the signature directing style of Hype Williams and the fish-eye lens to the loud neon color scheme and plentiful array of cameos, including Lil’ Kim and Puff Daddy. One of the most memorable outfits showcases Elliott in a shiny black inflated trash bag, big hoop earrings, and dark sunglasses attached to a sparkly headpiece. By donning such an outfit, Elliott eschews the notion that a woman in a hip-hop video must appear sexually enticing and be as close to naked as possible. Instead of presenting herself as passive arm candy, the trash bag outfit is an undeniable means of subversive control within a heavily male-dominated industry.
This isn’t to say that Elliott is in favor of a hierarchy of female sexuality. Rather, artistic choices such as the trash bag outfit challenge the idea that the traditional video vixen aesthetic is the only acceptable form of female sensuality and/or beauty. In other words, Elliott may not have the body of peers and past collaborators such as Trina, Lil’ Kim, or Foxy Brown, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to hide in a corner. Similarly, Elliott wears a Mega Man costume in the video for “Sock It 2 Me.” She’s not a femme fatale or a part of the scenery. She’s a superhero, an advanced android, a nonhuman fighting machine.
In an article for Dazed, writer Kat George points out, “Elliott, a pioneering woman in hip hop, wasn’t looking for the approval of the court of popular opinion…she wasn’t looking to be a trending hashtag. We often give artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé applause for championing body positivity, because as ‘curvy’ women of colour, they’re presenting an ‘other’ in a predominantly skinny-centric, whitewashed industry.” Elliott’s feminism may be cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned pop culture titans, but I would argue that the rapper’s philosophy of body positivity involves elevating all body types and not just the 36-24-36 bust-waist-hip ratio deemed the only radical antithesis to white, supermodel, high-fashion thinness.
Even if she hasn’t outwardly labeled herself a feminist or appeared on stage in front of a huge, blazing FEMINIST sign at the VMAs, Elliott’s music has always been about championing women and disavowing sexist double standards. Take for example the still-relevant track, “She’s a Bitch,” from her 1998 album, Da Real World. The song addresses the fact that women are punished for being assertive or aggressive. A woman in a position of power is often viewed as a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is given a free pass on his behavior. He never faces a fraction of the scorn and scrutiny as the woman and is simply regarded as confident and self-assured. He’s just a man being a man, whereas the woman is believed to have violated some archaic rule of femininity and decorum.
Elliott raps, “She’s a bitch / When you say my name / Talk mo’ junk but won’t look my way / She’s a bitch / See I got more cheese / So back on up while I roll up my sleeves.” Elliott takes the word bitch and reclaims its razor-sharpness as a badge of honor, a marker of indomitable strength and capitalistic prowess. In a conversation with Interview prior to the release of the song’s music video, Elliott said, “Music is a male-dominated field. Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident.”
Is financial independence the key to feminism? It may not be the end-all, be-all, but it’s linked to freedom from the oppression of a male-dominated society. The motto of autonomy via financial prosperity is a theme that repeatedly pops up in Elliott’s work. An obvious hit is “Work It,” from 2002’s Under Construction. Elliott’s swagger encompasses the demand for sexual satisfaction to money as a means of individual empowerment. She declares, “Girl, girl, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you ahead of the game.”
Not only can money provide empowerment, but so can sex. Songs such as “One Minute Man” take the stigma out of a woman’s need for sexual satisfaction by critiquing a man’s supposed bedroom skills. In “Hot Boyz,” a man’s attractiveness is dependent upon his ability to provide not only in the bedroom, but in terms of material goods and reputational clout. Elliott asks, “What’s your name, cause I’m impressed / Can you treat me good, I won’t settle for less / You a hot boy, a rock boy / A fun toy.” In the context of Elliott’s lyrics, men are never the center of her world, but they can serve as fun stepping stones or pleasurable distractions.
Without Missy Elliott, there would be a noticeable void in both hip-hop and R&B. Her latest single, “WTF (Where They From),” proves that Elliott’s creativity, though seemingly dormant since 2005’s The Cookbook, never left. The single, produced by longtime friend Pharrell, feels as fresh, energetic, and funky as anything on her previous albums. As she said in an interview with Billboard, “Unfortunately, breaking news, there is only one Missy.”
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.