Missy Elliott is a name that sits right up there with the best of musical royalty. Not only one of the most influential female artists of the past two decades, but also a style icon and auteur in her own right, the world has been a little less colourful without new additions to her solo repertoire in the last ten years. Despite releasing five top ten albums between 1997 and 2005, and continuing work as a writer and producer for other artists since then, her extended hiatus from original work has surely been felt. For those who need a reminder of just who Missy Elliott is, she burst on to the seen with debut single The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) in ’97 and proceeded to reinvent hip-hop and R&B with her off kilter rhythms and futuristic stylings. Elliott recently caught up with Billboard Magazine off the back of her new single WTF featuring Pharrell Williams to talk about just what made her hang up those hoop earrings for so long.
Jonathan Ringen who conducted the interview explains that as Elliott sees it “the current attention span challenged culture is just waiting for her to fail, and the only way to successfully negotiate that hazard is to come out with a record so hot it can’t be denied.” And in her own words “People are quick to be like, you’re irrelevant, you’re a flop, you’re washed up.” It’s an amazing thing to read coming from of an artist that is often lauded as one of the most interesting and unique voices of our generation. It is a reminder that despite all the glitz, underneath that mirror ball make up is a real human being. Over the past week fans have been left reeling by WTF and it’s accompanying video clip (if you haven’t seen it yet, give yourself five lashings with your headphones and press play below). With an impact that can’t be understated, the clip racked up 3 million streams in its first day alone. At this juncture though, it is an important time to understand the journey that has been taken to get to this point and the struggles that have been endured.
We previously published a feature about the hip hop world finally embracing depression, with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake bringing long awaited serious discussion to light. In Elliott’s case, coming up with serious anxiety in the 1990’s must have been very hard, and perhaps the path has been slowly paved so that she can be more open about the troubles that have plagued her. In the interview, Elliott discusses the serious impacts on her health during the height of her career, resulting with her being diagnosed with Graves’ disease (an autoimmune condition affecting the thyroid). The impacts were obvious with her losing weight, hair loss, and other physical changes. Sharaya J, a rapper and dancer signed to Elliott’s Goldmind label commented that “what that does to a person, being a public figure and knowing that people are looking, judging? That’s a tough thing.” And, despite having an outwardly gregarious persona, it’s a recurring concern for Elliott, who is often paralysed by public perception.
Her shyness also extends to her creative process with the artist commenting that she never records in front of anybody. Ringen discusses how this mirrors the way Elliott immersed herself in music as a child. She has spoken out before about surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin and frequently seeing her mother beaten by her father. Much like being alone in the studio lets her escape the outside world, as a child her bedroom was a place of solace: “ My room would become a whole other world once I shut that door,” she says. “That’s why I believe my videos are so important to me. It was Alice in Wonderland: my bed, my closet – it would all turn into something else. And I would write and sing and block out whatever was going on.”
Listening to Elliott talk now, she seems to have a good handle on herself and what she needs to survive the sometimes harsh music business, keeping a mountain sanctuary home so she can escape from the city when she needs to relax her mind. It seems then, the timing was just right when in 2014, Pharrell Williams invited her to the studio, and Katy Perry’s team reached out to have her pair up with the songstress for the Super Bowl half time show. The cards all fell into place and set a long awaited return into trajectory. But even then, in that moment of grandeur at the Super Bowl, Elliott’s anxiety would not rest and saw her in hospital with a full blown panic attack the night before the performance. As she stood side of stage she recalls commenting “I know if I can get over this step, then I know all my dance moves will be on point… I know it was nothing but the grace of God that lifted me up and took me through that performance.”
While sitting back and watching the epic back catalogue of Missy videos, not to mention the mesmerising latest effort for WTF, it is with new eyes that we can appreciate a woman who is always pushing through those personal boundaries to exceed expectations set by herself as much as everyone else. It is also a reminder that the artists that we admire and appreciate, at their core, are just as scared and uncertain as the rest of us. It is a vulnerability that should be embraced, and not one that should need to be hidden. We look forward to seeing what else Missy has in store for her next album, due out likely some time in 2016. Something tells me she won’t be disappointing us, herself, or anyone else for that matter.