elcome to the second half of the Year of the Diva. Mariah's on top, Whitney's batshit on TV, Toni's working again, and Madonna's preparing a dance record so that once again, the people can come together around her. The train of high-profile flops seems over (we'll chart the public's shunning of the diva archetype starting weeks after Aaliyah's death with Mariah's Glitter in September 2001, and ending around the three-month wake of Janet Jackson's Damita Jo, released in March 2004), and the public finally is willing again to embrace female, personality-baring R&B;/pop singers. That's not to say that we no longer have use for someone like the wonderfully vacant Ciara or the slightly more present Beyonce. But, in true '05 style, the diva concept has been remixed. Before, a diva was someone who was consistently larger than her songs (yes, we're linguistically bastardizing in the first place, but the word has evolved enough from its operatic origins to be valid in this context). But now, there's more of a balance to achieve in divadom. "Larger-than-life" is not a desirable place to be, so someone like Mariah needs to scale back entirely to succeed (Mimi is so well-mannered and often tight-lipped that it makes you feel like you're the crazy one for ever thinking you had a grasp on her post-Daydream persona). There might be glimmers of anti-gay-as-anti-camp sentiment or even flat-out femmephobia in this shifting, but the smaller scale works for males, too—even the reliably flamboyant Ying Yang Twins are whispering in '05.
Missy Elliott herself doesn't whisper on The Cookbook, her sixth and maybe best album, but at least one track does—she and Timbaland drop it like it's quiet on the opener "Joy." The muted thud-and-shuffle combination immediately recalls Snoop and the 'Tunes or "Wait" and is one example of The Cookbook's frequent sugar-borrowing from today's pop. See, Missy, a pop fanatic for life, who listened to Janet, Whitney, and Mariah years before she ever worked with them, must know all about the diva dilemma and how its current effect on her is opposite her more established, less faceted peers.
But of course Missy's going against the grain—she always has. In the name of forward thinking, Missy's voice, whether rapping or singing, has lived in her beats' shadows—yes, she's a presence, but her clout varies song-to-song, and in many cases, her classicist delivery has been dwarfed by Tim's futurism. "Me without Tim is like Jamaicans wit' no curry," she said on Under Construction's "Funky Fresh Dressed" in 2002. Tim appears on just two of The Cookbook's 16 tracks, the album doesn't lack spice. It's like really good jerk chicken and it's Missy, Missy, Missy that we're feasting on.
Because Missy can do so much within a given song (her writing, rapping, and singing make her a "triple threat," as she repeatedly explained on the barely viewed-but-great UPN reality series, The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott), her personality can end up diluted. Missy doesn't pay off in the obvious departments, diva and otherwise—she doesn't offer in-your-face melisma, a vocal range as big as Texas, a flow so swift it's got to be a gift or strings of populist-minded clichés. But on The Cookbook, her three-pronged attack is at its strongest and most focused, thanks to Missy's pop-music creole. Here, she's so fluid, it's hard to recall after listening whether she sang or rapped over "Meltdown," a Scott Storch production so affectionate, it could have been called "Rock the Hummer." Was the "Lick the Balls" remake, "Irresistible Delicious," a duet or sparring match with Slick Rick (who, by the way, has never sounded better)? And why did she interrupt her spitting in the ballad "Time and Time Again" to say, "Lemme stop playin' with y'all motherfuckers, this ain't no rap record, get back to the hook"?
It's all a hook, really, because behind Missy's cool or blunted façade is a pop star who's every bit as eager to please as someone like Mariah. She's just always been more mature about it, and on The Cookbook she continues maturing right before our ears. She's becoming increasingly comfortable in her own skin, explaining in the brilliant lead single "Lose Control," which supplants hip-house's ethic from Chicago to Detroit: "I've got a cute face / Chubby waist / Thick legs / In shape." On "Joy," she reminds us about her zaftig beginnings: "Since '92 I came to win and never lose / They try to stop a chubby chick from coming through / My belly out and selling out these venues."
Missy seems like she's getting to be OK with herself in other ways, too. Though she's (let's be real) probably gay and (let's be realer) probably will never come out, she seems at least slightly more brazen about the topic, name-checking America's Next Top Model Cycle 3 winner Eva Pigford, to whom she's been romantically linked, in the squishy Neptunes production "On & On." "My heart was somewhere else / Whenever we sexed, I wished that he was someone else," goes a couplet in "Meltdown" that should hit home to anyone who's had closeted sex. Of course, Missy goes on to reveal her lust for the "magic stick" here and elsewhere (most blatantly the fantastic sass-fest and Fantasia duet "My Man"). These tracks could be viewed as smoke screens (because even if you don't agree with the above assessment of Missy's sexuality, there's no denying the presence of rumors), but they're not the typical no-dyke relaxers we often hear from whispered-about female rappers (a la MC Lyte's "Ruffneck," Queen Latifah's "Fly Girl," or Da Brat's "What'chu Like"). This is because these tracks are primarily testaments to Missy's love of classic R&B; songwriting. It doesn't really matter whether the songs are true coming from Missy, because these tracks of wondrous hooks and punch-you-in-the-gut emotion are true in themselves.
Missy exudes an assuredness throughout The Cookbook for no matter what she does and no matter where she's coming from. She's no longer the weird kid who has to dress herself up in weirder beats to make a mark—she can take on the Top 40 and completely own it. She reunites Grand Puba and Mary J. Blige and has Mary rap on "My Struggles," just cuz she can. She out-Ameries Amerie on the Rich Harrison-produced "Can't Stop." She chases Destiny's Child off the football field without so much as letting them catch their breath not once, but twice (the best track-cum-exuberance overload "We Run This" and "Bad Man"). Yes, she makes some bad choices (the rude-girl posturing on "Bad Man" is, well, bad and she shoulda stayed off the crunk and never cut the failsafe failure "Click Clack"). Yes, she explains herself slightly too much sometimes (vaguely racist interludes attempt to tie the album together, but don't hold a candle to the great unifying element that is her musical fangirldom). But this is only because she's so unbridled. Her adventurous and, yes, massive, persona is allowed to wander wherever it wants on The Cookbook, be it avant or common. While everyone else inhales deeply and squeezes to fit into the pop landscape, Missy lets her belly hang out. Her fearlessness is the real sound of emancipation.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: JULY 4 - JULY 10, 2005
Reviewed by: Rich Juzwiak
Reviewed on: 2005-07-05