When Missy Elliot released her debut album, she transformed our expectations of hip-hop. Her sexy lyrics, wild visuals and avant-garde outfits stretched our imagination as well as the range that currently existed in rap. She broke an invisible barrier and set the scene for many succeeding rappers, whose brevity thanks to her, did not seem alien.
Pharrell Williams, long time friend and collaborator has lamented time and time again how “She defied the physics that were dictated to us. She ignored the gravity of standards and prejudices and stereotypes. She ignored that gravity." Of all the stereotypes that she went against, her complete disregard of gender roles in the way she presented is probably the most powerful.
Many women breaking through the world of rap in the late 90s and early 2000s had to deal with notions of sexual liberation and womanhood as they battled to secure their place in the male-dominated world of hip hop. As a way to prove their credibility, a lot of these women would often choose to curtail their outward feminine image so as to not let it get in the way of being “real,” and rarely rapped about sex and sexuality. That is until the Lil Kim led era that saw women embracing their autonomy as women, fearlessly centering sex positivity in their lyrics as well as outward presentation, while still proving their rap prowess over and over again in their music.
“When it comes to sex, don’t test my skills, cause my head game got you head over heels” (from Magic Stick by Lil Kim)
In a world where men were (and still are) often celebrated for being braggadocios about their sexual escapades, while women are deemed ‘jezebels,’ the likes of Lil Kim doing exactly the same was a rebellious act and ultimately challenged the way the hip hop world looked at sex and women. What is important to remember though is that this brand of sexiness was still conventional. Granted it was for the wrong reasons as it was still greatly objectified- in spite of the intention often having very little to do with male acceptance- but it was certainly well represented.
Enter: Missy Misdemeanor Elliot, who put her thang down, flipped it and reversed it just as hard, but looked very different doing so. She presented womanhood, sexuality and body positivity without traditional masculine desire at the epicenter of her movement. Missy created different characters for almost each music video she released, and perhaps her refusal to talk about her private life played a part in making these characters more believable. In the surreal world she created, she was a bald-headed creature in all black costume with metallic accents in She’s A B**ch, or a red action figure with an M on her chest in Sock it 2 me.
Missy rapped about how gorgeous she was (“I’m really really hot”), the importance of women putting their desires first (“Can you treat me good/Cause I wont settle for less”), and clapped back at the double standards imposed on women rapping about sex and sexuality (“How you studying these h*es?/ Need to talk what you know/ And stop talking 'bout who I'm sticking and licking/ just mad it ain't yours,”).
And when she was not playing a character and rocking futuristic costumes, Missy was often seen in oversized clothing, tracksuits, a bold colored lip and experimental hair. It is very easy to assume that Missy’s breakthrough was widely and easily accepted, because who doesn’t think she is legendary right? But entering a world with a pre-existing mold of what a woman who raps should be like could not have been easy. Like Pharrell said, a lot of Missy’s music journey is a generous act of defiance. As a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, her music served as a powerful reclamation of her body; and in turn encouraged women to do the same.
By no means is this an invitation for the likes of Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and now Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion etc. to be devalued for the way they choose to present. In fact Missy Elliott would definitely not stand for the devaluation of one woman for the sake of uplifting another, as she shown through her collaborations with a number of women in the music industry. But her clear awareness of her worth- her true worth- in the way she never failed to express what she truly felt inside is beyond inspiring. The way her music always felt like an open invitation to a party, creating what felt like a massive community of women who loved themselves, their bodies and simply wanted to dance. For the 5min duration of her song Missy made you feel like the flyest chick in the world; she made you feel like yourself.