Online Editor Harry Caton reviews Missy Elliott’s latest EP.
It’s been a while. Over a decade since Missy Elliott last took the worldwide R&B stage, she returns with the casual hand-grenade of surprise EP ICONOLOGY. To anyone with a passing interest merely adjacent to the genre, this is a big deal. True, it’s hardly the first we’ve heard of her in all that time (arriving mere months after a bracing guest spot on Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You), but that it comes straight from the source is as unexpected as it is welcome. Elliott was always ahead of her time and, as ever, that means she’s one step ahead of us. More to come in the future, perhaps? That we could be so lucky.
So, the record itself. ICONOLOGY is far more than a reminder that she’s still around, embracing its titular subject of iconic interpretation in how Elliott endlessly reinvents herself. It’s perhaps the EP format at its best: a set of experiments, in which the splash of each track is so much wider for the overall paucity of content. There are no pretensions here. The repeated croon of “This is a Missy Elliott exclusive…” grandly announces, with
Of course, it’s not just Elliott at work, the album’s five tracks featuring multiple collaborators. With sly serendipity, these productions mesh together in vibrant strains of stripped-back big-beat, funky R&B, neo-soul, and gospel. Likewise, they hit the points of contact between themselves without obvious effort. A searing few verses of rap-break are never too far away from the more languid bars.
With sly serendipity, these productions mesh together in vibrant strains of stripped-back big-beat, funky R&B, neo-soul, and gospel.
More symbolic – iconic, perhaps – is the return of Timbaland to co-production duties on the blues-heavy latter half. It’s a welcome reminder of his long-term collaboration with Elliott throughout the 90s and 2000s, when the duo mastered early the R&B hybrid forms that would build a legacy, in the long years after their 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly and 2005’s (apparent) closer The Cookbook.
That legacy, nevertheless remaining the sole possession of Missy herself, survives in the EP’s genre-bending style and attitude. The snappy, staccato, bring-it-home hooks of its first two tracks, collaborations with hip-hop producer Wili Hendrix (there’s more than a shade of 2002’s ‘Work It’ in the lead single), are counterpoised against reminders of Elliott’s formidable singing ability. But it all feels like Missy, flexibility an inseparable part of her discography. The subterranean throwback beats of ‘Throw It Back’ are whipped into double-time with ‘Cool Off’, a quick ‘n’ dirty drum machine stand-out, while still bouncing about beneath guest spot Sum1’s twisting melodies in ‘DripDemeanour’. That none of this feels over-produced is a testament to the thing’s sheer grace, the latter song wrapping those beats all up in its distorted rubber funk.
Elliott’s vocals are, as ever, superb. Capper ‘Why I Still Love You’ is the most expressive piece of all, each chorus a whole rising crescendo before it levels out back to neo-soul doo-wops. The big-beat stuff likewise showcases her dexterity, as she presides with coy delight over all her tight, high-energy hooks: watch her go “round – like a – ceiling – fan” four times in ‘Cool Off’. It’s classic sass and smarts from one well-versed in the form.
In that sense, the lyricism is on point. Missy’s clipped braggadocio is well-deserved; that her beats slap and her funk soothes is self-evident. The EP joyfully blasts through its scattershot themes of self-possession, as bite-me fierceness eventually gives way to soulful wisdom. The finale is a standout here, gliding across a tale of being smarter and better than past hurts while deepening simple pride into self-love. It’s all got the sheer, conscious cool of any of one of Elliott’s early productions, now in bite-size form.
Missy’s clipped braggadocio is well-deserved; that her beats slap and her funk soothes is self-evident
That there’s not much to go around makes its promise all the more tantalising. A full-length album might have further fleshed out the gaps between the rhythms, raps, and blues. Where Elliott’s high-BPM aspirations feel newfound, aggressive, and energetic, the latter parts seem a bit of a comedown in how relatively staid they are. They’re by no means of a poorer quality, but, instead, feel like a loss of momentum. For reference, The Cookbook was 63 minutes; this is a comparatively minuscule 14. That there’s so little here means the necessarily less urgent parts leave less of an impression. This is an elegant, often electric EP with an aftertaste that lingers all too briefly. A prompt A Capella remix of the final track justifies itself through complexity, but hasn’t much else new to offer.
Still, what’s ultimately a too-brief return is made up for by the style of it all. An entire age after Missy Elliot inspired many other women to strike out in a male-dominated genre – Lizzo, in ways both musical and thematic, seems one of her closest relations – it’s refreshing to see the lady herself back like she never left. Granted, as she puts it in her opener,
“What you doin’ now
I did for a while.”