When Missy Elliott walks back into the room, nearly 15 years after her last album, every knee must bow. She’s the kind of genius who can work on her own eccentric terms, and the whole world agrees to play along because, well, what other Missys have we got? There’s never been another and never will be, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate the one we have, with whatever music she’s got in her. Iconology is only an EP with four new songs, but it still feels like the real Misdemeanor—not a revival of her past, but a taste of her right now.
It’s weird how canons work — these days, you hear plenty of people who seem to believe that in the Seventies, Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin had trouble getting their share of praise, and now you hear people claim the same thing about Missy Elliott. So it should be noted that everybody on earth agreed Missy was a genius about 30 seconds into the first time they played Supa Dupa Fly, the best album of 1997. Especially if they started with “The Rain,” one of the all-time great debut singles and the one that announced the Virginia Beach duo of Missy and Timbaland as the moddest of squads. It was a utopian moment when feminist hip-hop sounded like the indisputable future. As Da Brat put it in the “Sock It 2 Me” remix, “This is the motherfucking bitch era!”
Just a few years later, the gender dynamics of the pop world had flipped completely, in ways that were horrifying at the time, but suffice to say that by Y2K, nobody was still believing it was any kind of bitch era. (Unless you meant the bitch-baiting of Eminem, whose rise mirrored the sudden decline in airplay for female voices, which didn’t necessarily seem like a coincidence.) In the early 2000s, Missy sounded like the last standard-bearer for the high hopes of the Nineties, along with Radiohead — it was weird how closely their stories were linked, as two of the only mega-star artists still aspiring for the goals everybody else was giving up on.
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But after The Cookbook in 2005, Missy quietly stepped out, for health reasons. She kept a low profile until the epochal moment when Katy Perry brought her out as a surprise guest at the Super Bowl, and Missy got to see how bad the world had been fiending for her. She’s dropped a few loosies since then — “W.T.F. (Where They From),” “Pep Rally,” “I’m Better” — and they’ve been prime, along with her excellent “Tempo” on the Lizzo album. But with Missy, more is more, so Iconology is a welcome return. “Throw It Back” and “Cool Off” are in the vein of classics like “Work It” or “Izzy Izzy Aah” or “Get Ur Freak On” or “Let Me Fix My Weave.” She and producer Wili Hendrix mix up spaced-out abstract trap futuristics with an Eighties hip-hop block party vibe. She boasts, “I did records for Tweet before y’all could even tweet.” Missy was always an old-schooler at heart. (When she picked up her Video Vanguard award at the VMAs this week, she called it by the old name nobody is supposed to call it anymore — the “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard” — and it didn’t seem like an accidental slip of the tongue.)
She re-teams with Timbaland for the superbly titled “DripDemeanor,” an R&B slow jam in the “Pussycat” tradition: “I open up my candy shop, my panties drop.” It ends all too soon with the Fifties soul of “Why I Still Love You.” The a cappella reprise doesn’t hold up, but song-wise she goes 4 for 5, a fairly typical Missy winning percentage. Iconology is only 15 minutes of music, so it leaves you hungry for more. If you’re the kind of Missy fan who got giddy at the very idea that this music existed, listening all week has probably involved a whole range of emotions from exhilaration (she’s back!) to confusion (that’s all?), but ultimately, the lasting impact of the music is a sense of gratitude. It’s a vital reminder of why we’ve been missing her so much. And of why she’ll always be welcome back.