Honoured at the MTV VMAs this week, the Virginia rapper has just surprised fans with a new EP, Iconology. We rank her 22 singles, from her 1997 debut to 2017’s I’m Better
22. Take Away (2001)
A ballad from the album Miss E … So Addictive, enlivened by its off-kilter rhythm and queasy-sounding sample, retooled as a tribute to Elliott’s late friend and collaborator Aaliyah. While the lyrics sort of fit their new purpose, the accompanying video bizarrely concludes with a version of party anthem 4 My People, apparently intended as Elliott’s comment on 9/11.
21. Teary Eyed (2005)
A relative flop after a string of hits, perhaps because it abandoned the frenetic futurism of her most famous singles in favour of straight-up retro R&B. Teary Eyed offered further proof that Elliott could really sing and packed a decent chorus without causing the seismic thrills of Lose Control or Work It.
20. I’m Better (2017)
I’m Better arrived 20 years after Elliott’s debut single – an eternity in hip-hop – and found her paying lip service to current trends: a trap-influenced beat, a hint of slurred vowels about her delivery, lyrical references to “the bando”. Less innovative than her biggest hits, it is still home to some sharp lines: “Missy talk big I’m so grande … I just rant like I’m Kanye.”
19. Beep Me 911 (1998)
A heartbroken R&B slow jam – featuring dimly remembered trio 702, for whom a pre-fame Elliott wrote songs – rendered into something alien-sounding: the rhythm stammers and never settles; the instruments sound slightly off-key; and Elliott’s voice floats ethereally over the top, lending its saga of a collapsing relationship a blank-eyed, disaffected air.
18. 4 My People (2002)
A paean to hip-hop’s belated discovery of MDMA – “I wanna dance and lick your face,” offers Elliott, while guest vocalist Eve bemoans the ecstasy user’s perennial bugbear, drunks spoiling the vibe – 4 My People’s four-to-the-floor house beat has an authentically sweaty, wild-eyed quality, vastly superior to hip-hop’s subsequent dabblings in shiny pop-house.
17. Sock It 2 Me (1997)
There is a boldness to Sock It 2 Me – which is based on a sample from the Delfonics’ Ready Or Not Here I Come, a song the world should have had its fill of following the Fugees’ chart-topping cover the previous year. But producer Timbaland warps the sample into a strange, disjointed new shape; Missy sings and Da Brat offers a warp-speed guest appearance.
16. All N My Grill (1999)
Missy back in warped R&B mode – a smart, witty take on the standard no-romance-without-finance lyric (“Talk is talk and talk is cheap / Tell it to her, don’t say it to me”), further brightened by the appearance of Outkast’s Big Boi, who goes from rapping about lingerie to issuing threats in archaic English (“I will jab thee and stab thee”).
15. One Minute Man (2001)
The brilliance of Missy Elliott’s exploration of the topic of premature ejaculation (spoiler: she is not terribly sympathetic) lies in the weirdness of its structure, at least in the version from the video. A minute before the end, it turns into a completely new track, dropping the G-funk synths for a propulsive, percussive, dancehall-influenced finale that is inexplicable and inspired.
14. Hit Em Wit Da Hee (1998)
Subtle but sexy, the final single from Missy Elliott’s debut album is best heard in the remix used on its supernatural-themed video and the soundtrack to teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, where the low-riding funk of the rhythm track is disrupted by samples of neighing horses and eventually replaced by strings sourced from Björk’s Joga.
13. Shake Your Pom-Pom (2008)
Unfairly ignored, Elliott’s second single from the soundtrack of Step Up 2: The Streets was great: a clattering beat that nodded towards the kind of block-party breaks that inspired hip-hop in the first place, Missy hymning the potent effect of her “big old donkey” on any passing men.
12. Gossip Folks (2002)
Haters beware: Elliott is in particularly raw-throated, bug-eyed form in a post-cameraphone but pre-social-media assault on privacy invasion and rumour-mongering that addressed questions about her sexuality. A Fatboy Slim remix highlighted the ultra-hooky chorus, but the best line might be one of Missy’s most inventive disses: “You soggy breasts, cow stomachs.”
11. I’m Really Hot (2004)
Missy Elliott was a groundbreaker, sonically and lyrically, turning hip-hop’s standard narrative of sexual power and limited notion of feminine beauty on its head. She does it here: paying tribute to her own gorgeousness on the dancefloor, before sending the guy she takes home packing: “You gets nowhere, just two blue balls down in your underwear.”
10. We Run This (2006)
For all its forward-thinking, Elliott’s sound frequently paid homage to hip-hop’s roots. Never more so than here: We Run This is a thrilling reworking of Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band’s b-boy anthem Apache, tricked out with a blaring horn section, filled with call-and-response vocals that sounds like a guaranteed party-starter.
9. Ching-A-Ling (2008)
The saga of Missy Elliott’s still-unreleased seventh album – endlessly delayed by ill-health and artistic indecision – begins here, 11 years ago. A head-turning cacophony of airhorns, electronic noise and dub-influenced effects complete with a return to Work It’s backwards-masked vocals, it is hard not to think it would have been a hit six years earlier.
8. She’s a Bitch (1999)
Despite a $2m video, the first single from Elliott’s second album, Da Real World, was a relative flop, which may have had less to do with its quality than the sonic risks Elliott and Timbaland were taking. She’s a Bitch is stripped back to almost nothing, a two-note riff that repeats throughout, never changing, and some abstract electronic strings: it is all it needs.
7. Hot Boyz (1999)
The best single from Da Real World. Everyone who appears on the hit remix version – Nas, Q-Tip, Eve – turns in a stellar performance, but the real star is the song itself: Elliott’s breathy, consumed-by-lust vocal chafing against the lyrics’ hard-eyed monetary concerns; the backing, with its low-key but addictive steel pan sample and willingness to let the beat drop away into silence.
6. WTF (Where They From) (2015)
After a sporadic series of promotional releases that failed to attract much attention, WTF was a million-seller. You can see why. Pharrell Williams’ beat recalls the Neptunes’ early 00s imperial phase, while Elliott sounds imperious as she ponders cultural appropriation and offers fair warning to young pretenders: “Blah-blah-blah, you best go rewrite your bars.”
5. Lose Control (2005)
By now, Elliott and Timbaland were adept at the alchemical business of making hugely exciting hit singles out of deeply unlikely ingredients. Lose Control variously features 80s electro-inspired synths and a drum machine, Ciara sweetly cooing an old-fashioned R&B hook and Fatman Scoop shouting his head off. Shouldn’t work; works perfectly.
4. The Rain (Supa-Dupa Fly) (1997)
It is worth considering the hip-hop era in which The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) appeared. It was the year of Puff Daddy’s I’ll Be Missing You, Will Smith’s Big Willie Style and Jay-Z’s pop-facing In My Lifetime: not the ideal moment for a female rapper clad in a bin liner to release a weird, sparse debut single. Its Ann Peebles sample provided a hook, but more important was how boldly it announced a stereotype-smashing, unique talent.
3. Pass That Dutch (2003)
Amid the sonic pyrotechnics of her greatest singles, it is easy to overlook what a fantastic rapper Missy Elliott can be. The brilliant Pass That Dutch is primary evidence – a sinister, sparse backing track with a Technicolor vocal performance: at turns insouciant, commanding, intense and very funny, complete with a faux acceptance speech.
2. Work It (2002)
Influenced by old school hip-hop – it samples Run DMC and Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three alongside Blondie’s Heart of Glass – but with its eyes fixed firmly on the future, Work It’s mélange of backward vocals, elephant samples and lyrics that would later have been labelled “body positive” is totally fantastic: joyous and ahead of its time.
1. Get Ur Freak On (2001)
It is a close-run thing, but Get Ur Freak On just shades it as Missy Elliott’s greatest single. A spare, supremely confident Top 10 masterclass in being simultaneously audacious and commercial, its relentless six-note sample – bhangra with a hint of drum’n’bass – keeps dropping out, leaving blank space in which Elliott can roar, whisper and shush her detractors. Horror-movie-soundtrack electronics hover ominously in the background, while voices speaking in Hindi and Japanese weave in and out of the mix. And Elliott is on fire: there is something about the don’t-even-try message to her competitors that feels bound up with the way Get Ur Freak On sounds: an artist who knows she has made a strange, groundbreaking, utterly compelling masterpiece.Quick guide.