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Friday, November 15, 2002

++ Missy's Revolution

++ If you're like me, you might be surprised by the ol'-skool design of Missy Elliott's new album, Under Construction. There she sits on the cover, looking pretty vintage in pink — puffy parka, inky indigo jeans, fuzzy Kangol, outrageous pink Nikes — and flossing '84-style next to a crappy old boombox. The inside photos are even more explicitly golden-era, with Missy rockin' the Run-D.M.C.-styled tracksuit in front of a wall splashed with ultra-stylized graffiti, "Wild Style-"-style.

It caught me off guard if only because Missy's music has always been nothing if not futuristic, her voice riddled with effects and freaky treatments. Timbaland's production sure isn't on any boom-bip tip. For years critics have talked about how he got his swing from drum 'n' bass (and it's pretty clear that plenty of recent UK garage, leftfield dance music, and IDM has gotten its swing from him); wherever it came from, he practically invented the idea of being "on some next."

Each new riddim was like a revision of the last, and instead of the typical picture of the producer — imagine Dre with his fat sack of sticky-icky splayed out on the mixing desk — I imagined white-coated lab assistants shaping and planing, tightening screws, locking down torque, as meticulous and efficient as Volkswagen's design team.

++ On the new record, beats flip just as skittishly, jumping like a floor full of mousetraps tripped by a single ping-pong ball. With a hop, skip and a bump, all the motion's in the float — flat pebbles sent sailing over an oil slick, touching down just long enough to give gravity a flirty kiss before flying away again.

But deep down, Under Construction is about roots. Fuck, not even deep down — right there on the sleeve, in the notes, in the skits, Missy asks, "What happened to hip-hop?" She takes things back to a golden age, before the fighting and the feuding and the media machinations that blew them up on a global scale, but unlike so many retro postures that posit a prelapsarian return, she doesn't fall back on retro formalism. Some of the most "conscious" hip-hop has often been caught in this bind, trying to take it back to '89 as though De La, Tribe, and the Jungle Brothers had never taken off their Africa medallions; they aim for a resuscitation, and fall back on style, slapping pancake on a corpse. Missy pays her respects — to the departed and the originators alike — and moves on. Under Construction isn't about pose; it's about ethics.

(And musically, this sure ain't no nth-gen James Brown funky-drummer shit. Tim goes back to the roots of soul, cutting loops like Soul Center, splicing genes in the embalmed body of R&B history. Just check the maniacally recurring "hm-mm" on "Bring the Pain," so spookily repetitive and soulful it makes Moby's soul-propriations look like the 40-acres-and-a-mule Repo job they really are.)

This is important, not only for hip-hop, but pop music in general. This is the first record that's truly excited me — musically, lyrically, conceptually — in a while. Well, yes and no — I've geeked out on plenty of discs that'll never be heard outside my circle — but it's sure as hell the first pop record to do so. It's the first that's had me imagining people all over the U.S., across class and race and scene, thinking even vaguely similar thoughts to my own. It offers a conversation in a way that the other conventional formulations of the market — either Next Big Thing, or Last Big Thing 2.0 — offer.

++ We — listeners, but especially the magazine writers, radio programmers, and assorted media whores that Missy calls out in her intro — are obsessed with novelty, and to a dangerous degree. New York rock blossomed in the soil of cultural ennui (there are racial overtones here, too, but we'll leave those aside for the moment, in the spirit of unification the Reverend Missy preaches). Electroclash boomed like a funhouse reflection of the Thatcher/Reagan years — and, according to the New York critics who know these things, is bust already. The new Sigur Rós album is a marketplace snooze, not because you can snooze to it, but because, well, how many more articles can anyone write about Icelandic rocker/mystics? The relentless search for the new, like some unwise industrial overexpansion, has left a hazy pall in the sky — if the color were a Crayola it would be called Who Cares Gray, or Over It Dun.

Missy sidesteps this whole lamentable trend. To continue with the environmental metaphor, her records are like renewable energy sources flipping the bird to an increasingly conservative, industry-owned administration with a bent for fresh pavement. She reminds us that hip-hop matters, and she shows us why: because it's in our history, deeper than most of us could imagine, and it's already encoded in our future. Things like hip-hop and rock 'n' roll don't just go away. But the way they age and evolve is up to us, and it's time we start thinking about what we want them to look like a generation or two down the line. Stakes is high. The grain in her voice says it all, like it always does, when she pleads her entreaty: "This is hip-hop, man" — and she pauses as imperceptibly as the hesitation in one of Tim's backbeats before she finishes — "this is hip-hop!"


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