Some scattered remarks on Missy Elliott’s latest, The Cookbook (iTunes).
- Missy really is the best. Hip hop is largely a boy’s/man’s game; women are usually more successful in (and more identified with) r&b. Although there were successful women hip hop artists who preceded Missy (Roxannne Shante; Queen Latifah; Salt ‘n’ Pepa; Lil’ Kim; etc.; for that matter, I still love Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One) none of them have been so successful for so long as Missy has. And I’m talking power and authority and artistic success, not just sales figures. In The Cookbook, once again, Missy (seemingly effortlessly) beats the boys at their own game.
- Snap, crackle, and pop. Even though there are only two Timbaland tracks this time, nearly every cut in The Cookbook is bursting at the seams with rhythmic vitality. The Neptunes outdo themselves in “On and On,” with its monster bass and its dynamic burbling/gurgling. Rich Harrison surpasses anything he’s done for Amerie with “Can’t Stop.” Missy herself produces some killer tracks, especially “Lose Control” with its transversal Juan Atkins sample.
- Missy insists on the links between hip hop and r&b. It isn’t just a matter of putting a rapper’s guest verse inside an r&b song, or of having an r&b chorus in a rap; but of mixing and matching the genres, and of moving fluidly back and forth between them. Mixing and matching the genres also means mixing and matching the genders. Missy insists on this fluidity by the way she orchestrates the guest appearances on the album: having Ciara sing a bar a capella in the middle of “Lose Control”; having Mary G. Blige rap instead of sing; and (moving beyond r&b to dance hall and I’m not sure what) uniting Vybez Cartel and M.I.A. on the album’s final cut. The r&b slow jams in The Cookbook, by the way, are gorgeous.
- Missy’s own voice needs more recognition than it has hitherto received. There are endless nuances to her tone and delivery: both between songs (compare the slyly seductive boasting of “On and On” to the hard-edged aggressiveness of “Mommy,” the song in which Missy announces that “in 2005, the industry will be pussywhipped”), and from line to line within individual songs. The beauty of Missy’s inflections is even greater than the beauty of her innuendoes.
- For that matter, Missy’s lyrics repay attention more than you might think. On the surface, they seem straightforward and banal: either she’s boasting about how great she is, or she’s repeating the familiar r&b themes about love and sex (the latter in moods that range from tender to raunchy). But listen closer: beneath the familiar framework, these lyrics are as filled with wordplay and dense allusions and self-reflexivity as Bob Dylan’s lyrics are. No doubt many people will find this assertion outrageous; but I think that banal obviousness plays precisely the same role in Missy’s words as willful obscurantism plays in Dylan’s: in both cases the question of meaning (all-too-clear in the one case and all-too-unclear in the other) is a red herring, a sleight-of-hand to distract us from (and thereby make us all the more vulnerable to) the real life of the songs, which takes place on a level before meaning, a level of infra-meanings and emotional feints and jabs and fluctuations.
- Nonetheless, I simply don’t believe the love songs on this album. Missy is just too butch for me to find the oh-I’m-so-deeply-in-love sentiments in cuts like “Irresistible Delicious” and especially “My Man” to be at all credible. As for the hymn to fellatio that is “Meltdown” — “bet it tastes like candy” — let’s just say that her ode to sex toys on This Is Not A Test fit better with her persona, as do the songs here about female sexual satisfaction, about the woman being in control (like the already-mentioned “Can’t Stop” and “Mommy”.
- I loathed the three “skits” interspersed into the album. The opening Latina monologue is pointless at best, and I wondered about why the accent; the one with the Asian manicurist is racist and offensive; the closing phone message is just inane and stupid.
- If — in spite of all I’ve said so far — I have an overall objection to, or sense of disappointment with The Cookbook, it has to do with a sense that Missy is just coasting, rather than pushing boundaries or pushing herself. Of course, from a commercial point of view, that is probably the right calculation; but I can’t help wishing/hoping/thinking that Missy has a strong enough position in the industry that she could eat her cake and have it too. The first few listens, I was inclined to agree with Julianne Shepherd that somehow the album seemed less than the sum of its parts, great in theory but not transporting the listener (Julianne or me) in practice. Now that I’ve listened a number of more times, I find that even the lesser cuts on the album tend to grow on me. But I still can’t entirely shake the sense that the whole album is too calculated, too willed, too much this-is-a-commodity-and-nothing-more. (Which is not to imply romantically that there is a category of supreme music that isn’t calculated, willed, commodified-from-the-start; it’s the “and-nothing-more” part that bothers me. There’s a certain wildness, or ecstasy, that’s missing; not that I can think of anything else released in recent months that has it…)