I could never forget the first time Missy Elliot made me marvel at the splendor of her gift for spectacle.
After rushing off the school bus, I dropped my backpack on the floor of the living room as soon as I got there and turned on the TV. That’s when I saw Missy Elliott in what looked like the freshest Glad trash bag I had ever seen in my life, in the video for 1997's "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." I had no idea of what I was watching, but I knew I couldn’t look away. And I knew I wanted to watch it again and again.
At that point, I already knew of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot — or at the very least, I had seen her face before in a music video. My sister is nine years older than me and so was always my childhood source of discovering things both cool and probably too old for me. Thus, as I was even then an early advocate for obscure R&B girl groups of the 1990s, I was vaguely familiar with Missy's first group, Sista, and their 1994 album "4 All the Sistas Around da World." Enough of y’all didn’t appreciate what they were going for — a woman’s answer to the group Jodeci, produced by Jodeci’s main producer DeVante Swing and pre-fame Timbaland — but if you did see the video for their single “Brand New,” you got the sense that Missy was something different.
In hindsight, she would prove to be more necessary than most of us could ever imagine.
But what I saw in Sista is nothing compared to what Missy presented in the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” The song itself, sampling Ann Peeble's 1973 minor hit "I Can't Stand the Rain," sounded nothing like I had ever heard before; the video took that to another level. From the cool cameos — favorites such as Lil’ Kim, Puff Daddy, SWV and 702 all appear and bop along to the song in the video — to Missy’s choreography (which I still wish I could, and no one can, duplicate), wardrobe, which so many of us could never pull off, and everything else Missy did in that video, not many artists can prove themselves that vital, much less on their first solo try.
I’m grinning now thinking about the feeling Missy gave me from watching her genius manifest. The way I felt watching that video was the same way I had once felt watching music videos from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Madonna.
I continued to be just as captivated by other videos like “Sock It 2 Me” (with Da Brat in 1997) “She’s A B**ch” (1999) and “Get Ur Freak On” (2001). Every video is different from the other. In one, she’s literally out of this world; in others she’s showing us worlds we have never seen but would love to go to.
Each of her videos — from the self-explanatory "One Minute Man" (2001) to the still-iconic "Gossip Folk" (2002) and near-dystopian "Work It" (2002) to the drumline-inspired "We Run This" (2005) and even the street-scene-and puppet-filled "WTF" (2015) — may differ in themes and imagery, but all share the quality of feeling forward-thinking, if not feeling flat-out futuristic. They all offer something different, not for the sake of being so, but as a testament to an innovator’s determination to set and continue raising her own standards.
Her latest EP, "Iconology," is no different: It includes not only a signature upbeat Missy song called "Throwback," with a eye-popping video to match, but also a slowed-down R&B jam and a song about heartbreak that she remixes … acapella, showing off her continuing vocal range.
I wouldn’t say Missy Elliott is the first female rapper to do great music videos that go beyond the standard stand-and-rap; I think those kudos belong to Lil’ Kim. However, I can’t think of any rapper of any gender that has produced music videos at the level of traditional pop stars the way Missy has. And in many ways, she went beyond many of her predecessors in how quietly influential she has been to both millennial and GenZ artists.
Some have already made note of this elsewhere — giving side by side visual testimonials to ways Missy has influenced her peers ranging from Beyoncé and Britney Spears to Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Pink. She has undoubtedly raised the visual ambitions of women in rap who have come after her — including Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Lizzo (with whom she recently collaborated on "Tempo.")
No concept has ever been too experimental for Missy; no look was ever deemed too far out there. Imagination has always been encouraged — which is why Missy’s career is largely a great alienation from what a hip-hop video "should" be, and in particular, what a female emcee "could" do (not to mention how one supposedly looks).
Missy, along her frequent video collaborators, directors Dave Meyers and Hype Williams, have long deserved more recognition for the gifts that are Missy’s music videos, so I’m glad MTV has finally decided to award her with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.
With all due respect, it took them long enough.
It’s not as if Missy Elliott has completely gone without recognition. Thankfully, in recent years — thanks to artists like Katy Perry, who invited the pioneering rapper, singer, writer and producer to perform as part of the Super Bowl XLIX halftime show she headlined in 2015 — and more than anything, her fans, who have continued to remind the world of what a gift Melissa Arnette Elliott has been to it.
Give Missy Elliott all her flowers, MTV — and for that matter, everyone else do the same — because Virginia’s finest and freshest deserves it.
Still, her path was hard and as she recently recalled in a "Marie Claire" cover story, she hopes that all that she’s done has inspired those who need inspiration most.
“I do want to make the generation behind feel like, don’t be afraid, because we are in a time where so many people can be artists,” she explained. “Now you can just post up, and if it gets to the right person, then it’s just viral."
But, she added, "I want them to not feel like they have to do what everybody else is doing to gain that attention. Just be you. It’s going to catch hold somewhere.”
If there’s anything to take from Missy’s storied career, it very much should be the notion that no matter what people tell you, your individuality is your strength— and so long as you stick to that and do the work, the possibilities are endless.