Missy Elliott Speaks About Inspiration, Her Career, And Longevity In The Music Industry
Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

In the days surrounding the 25th anniversary of Missy Elliott’s debut album, the Grammy Award-winning artist was able to reflect on her legendary career, and how she’s been able to stay inspired almost 30 years in the game. She spoke to ESSENCE about songwriting, the wealth of talent that comes from her home state, as well as the blessing of longevity.

“As a solo artist I’ve been in the game for 25 years, but in the music industry I’ve been here for 29,” Elliott said. “I’ve been reflecting on that. It’s a huge accomplishment – especially when you’re still around. When I think about my albums, you remember very clearly what space you were in at that time. Looking back at Missy 25 years ago, and looking at Missy in 2022, it’s just an amazing feeling. You go through a lot of ups and downs, so to still be standing is always a blessing.”

Finding inspiration can sometimes be difficult for even the most creative musician. For three decades, Elliott has managed to reinvent herself both as a recording artist and a songwriter. Since she came into the game, the Portsmouth-raised entertainer says that focusing on her music, and not necessarily to music of others, helps to fuel the fire that inspires.

“I believe every artist – especially when you stay in it for a long time – has periods of feeling ‘burned out,’ Elliott said. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m going to say that any artist that has spent 20 or more years – sometimes even 10 – you’re going to have those moments. Because you’ve been in it so long and you’ve done so many things, so many sounds, so many looks. I think that for me, the way that I came in it, I’m not a person who watches everyone else – I think that’s the biggest thing.”

“When me and Timbaland came in, we weren’t watching other people’s videos, we weren’t listening to the radio like that,” she added. “Because if you don’t see, or you don’t hear, then you end up creating your own sound. But if you begin to watch and listen, then a lot of times you end up catering to what’s happening right now.”

When it comes to songwriting, Missy’s name appears on a very short list. Throughout her career, she has penned hits for seminal artists of their era such as Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Fantasia, Trina, and several others. Elliott spoke about the process of writing for other artists, and the standard that she sets for herself when crafting songs of her own.

“Writing for other people is easiest for me,” the iconic musician told ESSENCE. “Writing for myself is very hard because I’m very hard on myself as an artist; and because I’m very different. So, when I’m doing songs for other people, they kind of say: ‘Hey, we want a Missy record,’ and they’re excited to have that. But when I’m writing for myself, I’m constantly saying: ‘I gotta do better than that,’ or ‘nah, that ain’t hot enough.’ So, it’s much harder writing for me because I’m extremely critical of my art and my projects.”

It is that critical eye and attention to detail that has made this 51-year-old a legend. Her upbringing in Virginia has contributed to her massive success in the music industry. During the conversation, names like Ella Fitzgerald, Allen Iverson, D’Angelo, Booker T. Washington, etc., all came up. For years, her home state has produced some of the greatest people that this country has seen. They have excelled in multiple walks of life, further proving that there is something special going on in VA.

“When you talk about game-changing states, Virginia has to be on the top of that list,” stated Missy. “We have so much talent that have gone on to become successful. It’s not just Missy, Timbaland and Pharrell – there’s Pusha T, and so many others.”

“We always say there’s something in the water; that’s our big saying,” Elliott responded when asked what she thought created this wealth of talent in Virginia. “That’s why Pharrell named his festival that because we’ve always said that. To this day I haven’t figured out what that ‘thing’ is. For me, I felt like we were in that middle space. A lot of people don’t know that Virginia is actually a Southern state. You had New York, you had the Midwest, and the West coast, and we were kind of in a place where we would get things a bit late, so we just started creating our own sound.”

“And every person that you’ve named, has done something special,” she continued. “And it isn’t just artists, but legendary artists. Whether it’s sports, entertainment or otherwise, I just feel honored that I’m able to properly represent that.”