Expecting Missy to conform to any expectations is a fool's errand

By Maura Johnston
August 23, 2019 at 04:21 PM EDT
The Goldmind Inc.

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When hip-hop visionary Missy Elliott announced on Thursday that she’d be releasing “a collection of new songs” later that evening, exclamation-point usage went through the roof. The future-forward producer, singer, and songwriter hadn’t released a proper album since 2005’s The Cookbook; in the years since, she’d dropped a handful of singles like the world-warping Pharrell Williams collaboration “WTF” and jumped on songs by the likes of Lizzo, Little Mix, and her pal Ciara. That she’d be receiving the MTV VMA’s Video Vanguard Award — a long-overdue accolade, given that her videography still ranks among pop’s most brain-warping — made people jump to the conclusion that her years-in-the-making seventh full-length would be on streaming services by dawn.

That Iconology wound up being a five-song EP, with two of those tracks having the same bones, was a bit of a letdown. But the material is still strong, with Elliott showing how she can flip and reverse even the most tired pop tropes. “Throw It Back,” the opener, begins with the sort of trap snares and a serpentine bassline that rule radio, but the sonic flourishes — an occasional jingle bell, cascading synths that sound borrowed from a tricked-out game of Centipede — elevate it among its competition, and underscore Elliott’s reminders that she’s been operating in her own lane for years now, particularly on the rapid-fire third verse, which name-checks her muse Tweet and the late Heavy D as it condenses her history into a dazzling showcase for her fleet rhyming.

“Cool Off” is a skeletal banger that shows how less can be more when it comes to making speaker-shattering boasts, and how that maxim can be made more true by Elliott’s deft hands; her clipped delivery only adds to the verses’ potency, while the “do it, do it” refrain calls back to hip-hop’s two-turntables-and-a-mic early days. It’s an oddly retro move for Elliott, whose music has often given off the vibe that she’s some sort of beat-crafting oracle, but she makes it work.

Slow jams dominate the EP’s back half — two songs that Elliott worked on with her similarly future-minded foil Timbaland. “DripDemeanor” splits the difference between glitchy and demanding, with Elliott alternating demands for a lover’s respect with detailed instructions on how he can best please her while plush synths skip-step underneath; the vocalist Sum 1 provides a chorus that’s breathy yet pointed. “Why I Still Love You” is a poison-pen letter in a heart-shaped box, Elliott’s conflicted emotions about holding on to a cheating lover animating her vocal performance and making the song’s resolute close — “Stay out my face, I’m gon’ be alright” — a mantra that will resonate with anyone, no matter their marital status. The last track isolates Elliott’s and her background singers’ vocals in a way that shows how she and Timbaland’s command of pure pop helped them drag the genre into uncharted territories over the years.

Iconology isn’t a leap into the 30th century the way the sinewy “Work It,” the tripped-out “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” or “WTF” were. But expecting Missy Elliott to conform to any expectations — even those of being outré — is a fool’s errand, and the affecting “Love” is proof of that. She’s still blazing a trail for pop weirdness; that it’s veering off in unexpected directions is par for the course.

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