“I want to do everything that I say in the song.”
That was Missy Elliott’s response when director Hype Williams asked for her ideas about the visual component of her 1997 hit song “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).”
In the video, she wore what appeared to be a crown. It was, in fact, a pair of vintage Alain Mikli shades, with glittering points that hugged her scalp. The effect was a crowning and a baptism at the same time. It was also a formal introduction to a new type of pop star: a thick girl entranced by the declarations of Run-D.M.C. and professional fly girls Salt-N-Pepa, primed to catapult the planet into the new millennium. She jerked her body and smirked her way into people’s consciousness—and into their hearts. To fans watching her, she almost seemed like an alien—but in fact, she’s so human, it hurts.
“I loved it!” says Sandra “Pepa” Denton of her introduction to Elliott’s artistry. A longtime friend, Denton spells out the creative modes of expression Elliott has mastered, punctuating each one for those who may be unaware: “Producing! Writing! Dancing! Rapping! And of course singing!” She’s proud of her little sister. Both she and Elliott tell the story of the first time they met: backstage at a Salt-N-Pepa concert. “She was just talking to me, and I was nobody,” Elliott says. “It wasn’t like I was coming out with a record, locally famous or anything like that. She was so kind to me, and I always remembered that.”
It’s the same grace and warmth Elliott herself has shown to others throughout her career. “Missy is an innovator, a true pioneer and visionary,” R&B singer Monica says. “Yet her most beautiful attributes are her genuineness, love and loyalty. The world is a better place because of this incredible soul.”
Back when I was a 5-year-old seeing her for the first time, I realized Elliott looked like women I knew. Her cropped finger waves, eyes that danced when onomatopoeias rolled off her tongue and medium-length, square-tip acrylics had me convinced that one of my family members had started a rap career and ain’t tell nobody. In 1997, Elliott wasn’t trying to change the world. Extravagance for its own sake wasn’t on her mind, either. In those days, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, then in her mid-20s, was just hanging out: Blunt blowin’ and trying to maintain, you know?
“I was having fun when doing the videos,” she tells me during our conversation via Zoom. “I never even thought, Let me try to do the most outlandish thing. That never crossed my mind, ever. It just spoke to who I was in school.” In other words, the Missy we saw on our screens wasn’t a character, it was her authentic self—which is perhaps why she and her sound resonated so deeply.
“I was always just different,” she continues. “So by the time I started doing videos, the music just really spoke to who I was as a person. And so I never thought, Hey, I’m going to do this, and this is going to change the world. It’s going to change the way videos look. Or I want to do the craziest thing ever. Nothing seemed crazy to me.”
Unlike Midas, the mythical king who prayed for the ability to turn everything he touched to gold, Elliott didn’t have grand plans to shift the hip-hop industry into her own moneymaking enterprise. The Portsmouth, Virginia, native just wanted the might to claw her way, and her mother’s way, out of a life of poverty. Her father, a former Marine, had physically abused her mother. Turns out there was some heartache lurking behind the animated smiles, jazz hands and one-legged hops.
There are revolutionary hip-hop acts with debuts that came before and after hers, but Elliott holds the distinction of being rap’s first solo female global star. It’s disrespectful to call her work magic, because it’s far from a trick. Her unshakable connection with her audience wasn’t a flash in the pan. Elliott worked for it every time, and never faltered. She made a hot song. Then dropped that album. Then released another single—you remember, right? The songs kept coming, the thermostat remained untouched. The albums? The ones certified by the Recording Industry Association of America, critics, grandmothers, high school badasses, block party DJs, and kids who abide by the street lights? And that’s not even counting the hits she gave other people. Or the waves she started that are still reverberating in the form of fresh faces.
Six platinum albums, four Grammys, and more than a handful of instantly classic, I-remember-exaaactly-where-I-was-when-I-peeped-that-joint-level music videos later, Elliott is now making history as the first woman in rap to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She says she most definitely didn’t see that achievement in the cards, a gentle reminder that her humility is almost as famous as she is. Can modesty and notability be considered a double helix of her musical DNA?
As a girl, Melissa Arnette Elliott prayed for acclaim, telling her classmates she’d be famous one day. Elliott also pretended to have conversations with Janet Jackson and Madonna; later, not only would she join them as emblems of feminist freedom, but she would also work on songs with them both.
Despite her belief in the future, Elliott came of age with anxiety, at a time when altar calls seemed like the only acceptable form of therapy for Black folks. “I think that a lot of things were brushed up under the rug for me growing up, and probably also for a lot of people,” she says. As illusions of Black women’s mental fortitude have begun to wane (there’s still ground to till), she has become more comfortable talking about where she’s been. Like so many others, she says she had some hard moments during the mass-isolation phase of the pandemic. “I had so much time to just think of childhood stuff, and all kinds of stuff,” she says. “But that’s what makes me human.”
She also mentions a nearly two-year low period that happened over a decade ago, which was compounded by her battle with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder. “Now I’m fine with being like, ‘Hey, I got anxiety’ or ‘I went through depression,’” she says. “Even the biggest artist, or just the regular everyday working person, we all go through shit. We all do. And it’s okay to say, ‘Hey, I’m not okay today.’ Probably we would keep a lot of people around if we were that open, because we would be able to uplift each other . We’d know that I’m not going to look at you crazy if you say, ‘Hey, I’m having a rough day.’ Maybe you’re thinking things that you shouldn’t think, or whatever the case may be.”
A well-known male contemporary whose name she prefers not to share (“Just know, Timbaland is my brother, but it’s not him”) helped her push through. “I had a peer of mine say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve been through the same thing,’” she says. “And he was just like, ‘Next time I see you, I’m going to put a mirror in front of your face, so you can remember who you are and all that you’ve done.’”
Now she’s that mirror for Black women whenever she can be.
The rapper has always been a giver. One winter during her childhood, Elliott wanted to give back. She carefully placed toys in a nearby wooded area for her neighbors to retrieve at their leisure. There was one small problem: The toys were Missy’s Christmas presents. Though her father made her go knock on the neighbors’ doors to reclaim her gifts, that charitable spirit never left her.
In 2020, influencer Najea Bradshaw tweeted about not having the funds for the wedding dress of her dreams, as a sort of “wish upon a star” moment. And like a fairy godmother, Elliott—who wasn’t even following her—somehow came across the post and sent her the cash for the dress. “I was sitting in my room and just tweeting on my phone like, ‘I’m not going to get the dress that I want, but at least I get to marry the person I love,’” Bradshaw, 25, recalls. Twenty minutes and a scepter flourish later, plans for her special day became the type of story you tell at every cookout.
For Bradshaw, a plus-size creator, having one of her childhood heroes play a part in outfitting her for a major event was life-altering. “I think I told her before, like, ‘You changed my perspective on fashion,’” she explains. “Missy wore whatever she wanted, regardless of her size, regardless of what anyone thought.”
While Elliott credits Hype Williams for coming up with the idea for the inflatable patent-leather suit she wore in her music video of “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” her decision to rock it—especially at a time when many Black women in hip-hop videos were scantily clad vixens—was a game-changer.
“For me to put on something to make me look even bigger than what I was, that was not the typical thing,” Elliott says. “Everything was kind of like a look back then. But, like I said, nothing is too outlandish for me.”
It’s been four years since Elliott’s last project, the EP Iconology, and nearly 20 since her last studio album with new songs. Since some of the fans dancing to her music on TikTok look like they have to adhere to curfews, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s been a lifetime. The streets wanna know when some new Misdemeanor will rattle their Jeep speakers.
“I got some new stuff in the works,” Elliott says, promising that it will be “fun” and “upbeat.” I can hear her grinning on the Zoom. I don’t get a chance to ask when we’ll get to hear it, but I’m praying it will be soon because it’s not really summertime until we hear her shout “NEW MISSY!” at the beginning of a track like a food-fight announcement. “I never tell dates,” Elliott explains. “‘Cause when I tell you dates, it will get you in trouble with them fans.”
Despite the roster of well-respected artists she’s already worked with, she has more on her wish list. She names André 3000, Rihanna (“We were supposed to have worked a few times. I think the scheduling was off or something, I don’t know—we just never have!”), Erykah Badu and Jill Scott (“I want them to rap!”) as artists she’d love to collaborate with. Elliott also isn’t afraid to revisit old songs. She says she’s down to finally make a music video for “Signs,” a Beyoncé deep cut that taught generations the correct order of the zodiac signs. “Yeah, she gon’ have to pull that back out,” Missy says with girlish delight. If I’m quiet enough, I can hear her wheels turning.
Her career has spanned over 25 years, and somehow Elliott keeps managing to reinvent herself. In a way, she has always seemed like she was part of the future. In 1997, it felt like she was in 2023, and today, it still feels like she’s light years ahead of the rest of us—and of the rap game. What does she see as the key to longevity in music? Simple, she says. “Be yourself.”
Humility matters, too. Before she died when Missy was a child, the rapper’s grandmother stressed the importance of being humble, regardless of which rung of the social ladder you were situated on. “I’ll always tell people that relationships, especially in this business, are more important than a check,” Elliott says. “As long as you have great relationships, you will always get a check, because people won’t mind helping you when you are down and out. I want people to know me for good music, but just being a good person, that is important.”
Legacy is tricky, or at least it can be. Some superstars have deeply complicated theirs by showing us all of the cogs on social media. Others have died young, leaving us with remnants of glory and a longing for what could have been. Then there are some who give their all, talent-wise, and trust us to put together the pieces. For Elliott, legacy isn’t this finite formation that hovers over us. It’s as flexible as we are and woven into our day-to-day—how we think, how we live, how we love. Often, it doesn’t even need words. It’s just felt. I guess that’s why our homegirl says, “I think my legacy speaks for itself.”
Brooklyn White is a former features editor of ESSENCE and founder of the Cool Mamas Club.