I’m still shook from Missy Elliott’s “I’m Better” video. I had no desire to own an exercise ball until now. I may or may not have put packing tape on my lips to recreate her beauty look. And the dancers decked in all white with those eerie blue contacts made me wonder if the white walkers on Game of Thrones have a Black Student Union that I didn't know about. It is a fantastical dream that supports the argument that we need more women of color representation in science fiction. I need to say this again: I. Was. Shook. I’m already prepared to drag MTV if it’s not nominated for Video of the Year at the VMA’s.
But for all of its futurist elements, “I’m Better” is still classic Missy. Making a long-awaited return to music, the hip-hop veteran directed the video herself alongside Dave Meyer. She choreographed it herself with Sean Bankhead. She obviously laid the vocals — which we can assume that she wrote — and she executed the moves she imagined in unison with her dancers. Missy is the quintessential “girl that can do both.” Get you one.
Together with Timbaland, Missy helped create the experiential sound that defined hip-hop in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and solidified the success of several of our favorite Black artists and groups. But Missy is more than a musician. She is a visionary artist who is willing to reimagine the world she inhabits using visual elements. Remember when she pulled her own head from her body in the “Minute Man” video? Or when she seemed to be the queen of some creepy, underground species in “Get Your Freak On”? How many times have you seen a poorly recreated version of her iconic costume from the “Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” with black trash bags?
Missy has never shied away from experimentation with her hair and makeup. She has boldly defied trends with her outrageous outfits and costumes — the exception being her affinity for classic Adidas track suits. Missy’s legacy has been a shining example of Afrofuturism since the term was coined. Her fresh leadership expands into the social sphere as well — the rapper/singer/producer/dancer/etc. basically embodyies everything we say we want to see from women in the music industry.
At age 45, Missy does not inhabit the kind of body that our culture uplifts as “goals.” And she never has. As a plus-size, dark-skinned Black woman, that isn’t a privilege she has been able to leverage. Yet, in her own act of resistance she lyrically waxes about that same body as sexy and desirable in her lyrics. And nothing has stopped her from creating and participating in intricate choreography. Every demand that contemporary women artists be young, thin, and as aesthetically similar to Nicki Minaj as possible be damned.
But the entertainer has never been one for petty comparisons. Throughout her career, Missy is most likely to be spotted standing alongside Black women. Her list of female collaborators is longer than list of punch lines in Remy Ma’s “ShETHER.” Eve, Beyoncé (with and without Destiny’s Child), Ciara, Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, Tweet, Aaliyah, Total, 702, Nicole Wray, Lil’ Mo, Trina… I could go on. Missy helped orchestrate the iconic “Ladies Night” collaboration that included herself, Angie Martinez, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez, and Da Brat. The sheer volume of talent made it the single most important moment for women in hip-hop. Today there are hardly enough women hip-hop artists who have achieved the same amount of visibility to even recreate that video. It was a show of solidarity that feels utopian in the current climate. [Sips tea.]
I don’t think it would be in vain to suggest that her physical dissimilarity to women artists like Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea, or even 90’s Lil Kim, is the reason that Missy hasn’t been allowed the same amount of notoriety despite her massive accomplishments. To me the obvious explanation is that as a culture, we aren’t ready to do the work of recognizing the genius of Black women outside of the parameters of respectability and desirability. Missy Elliott is further proof that Black girls are indeed from the future. She’s blazed a trail to somewhere we’ve never been before and I for one, am all in.