Tuesday, February 12, 2013

MISSY ELLIOTT, Miss (E) ...So Addictive
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

NME, The Face, Vibe, and Rolling Stone all put Destiny's Child on the front cover this year. Mainstream pundits like The New York Times seriously assess Beyonce Knowles's credentials as postfeminist icon. Give or take a few stubborn hold-outs, just about everybody--lapsed indie types, electronica fiends, non-aligned pop fans-agree that nu-skool R&B is the bomb. Confronted with this nearly unbroken consensus, the impulse to offer a dissenting opinion is irresistible. Is R&B all it’s cracked up to be? And is the current boom, which started about five years ago with Aaliyah’s Timbaland-produced smash “One In A Million” , finally running out of steam?

“Million” was one of the first R&B tunes where the beat was a lead voice, duetting with and often distracting attention from the singer. And it debuted Timbaland’s trademark sound: kick drums hyper-syncopated into triple or quintuple time spasms, stop-start grooves full of disconcerting yet tensely funky hesitations. Trademark infringers spread the Timbaland riddim-virus across the R&B/rap soundscape: most creative of these clones was She’kspere, architect of the big hits from Destiny’s previous album The Writing’s On the Wall. And for the longest while, the nu-R&B’s “dope beats” were so muthafunkin’ dope that it was easy to overlook the genre’s downsides: chronic oversinging, two-dimensional diva personae, suspect values, borderline tacky “glamour”. But if R&B really is just showbiz with a better beat (and slightly more risque sex-talk), those riddim-boys have gotta keep delivering the shock of the new. Trouble is, thanks partly to superstars like Janet and Jennifer diluting the already-weak brew, that Timbaland falter-funk beat has gotten kinda stale.

With She’kspere absent from Survivor, assorted lesser-known producers have been drafted to tweak the rhythm blueprint. “Independent Women Part 1” has a nice loping groove, refreshingly laid-back compared with the tense’n’twitchy norm. But the song’s not much cop, and where the debut communicated it ladies-first sass through story-songs and real-seeming scenarios ("Bills Bills Bills," "Bugaboo", "Say My Name"), now Destiny’s quasi-feminist stance is baldy declared. The stiff, harsh beats of "Independent Women Part 2" (not a sequel but a remake/remodel) bring out the true coldness of Destiny's take on modern love: after making the bootie call and having her itch scratched, Beyonce dismisses the spent stud with "when it's all over/Please get up and leave... Got a lot to do/ I am my number one priority/No falling in love, no commitment for me."

Likewise, the bombastic arrangement on "Survivor" matches the histrionic lyrics. The album credits salute those who've made it through "bad relationships, health issues, discrimination, being abused, death of a loved one, loss of a friend, not being popular, low self-esteem...". Beyonce, by contrast, appears to have "survived" a coup d'etat in her favor instigated by her manager/father (and involving the downsizing of two of Destiny's original four members) and.... fame/money/adulation beyond her fans’ wildest dreams. Tough life, eh?

Vibe magazine’s own Destiny's cover had the trio dressed as the Supremes. But the Motown-style separation of singer/songwriter/producer roles that worked so brilliantly on Writing is junked: Survivor sees Beyonce credited as co-writer/co-producer on every song. Although the results are uniformly inferior, it's a shrewd move in credibility terms: being an spokesperson for female empowerment but not writing your own songs wouldn't wash, really, would it? As a self-portrait, though, Survivor is incoherent, cutting from the coquetry of "Bootlylicious" ("I don't think you're ready/for this jelly") to the prudish "Nasty", which reprimands a scanty-clad tramp for flaunting her flesh. And even when the bump'n'grind is rhythmically in full effect---the almost-great "Sexy Daddy"--the raunch is sabotaged by tame, lame lines like "sweety pie/I think it's your lucky night".

“Tame” is one word you’d never use to describe Missy Elliott. Unlike, say Lil Kim, Missy can act the "crazy ho" but never degrades herself. She's got the power, doesn't need to issue shrill micro-manifestos a la Beyonce. She just revels in her own identity and appetite: "Dog In Heat', track 2 of her third and latest album, features the most cheek-flushingly heavy breathing since "Love To Love You Baby" and huskily droned lines like "slide/let's take a ride" that are genuinely erotic (something that barely exists in modern R&B, for all its graphic imagery).

There's more than hormones fuelling Miss (E) ...So Addictive, though. The title is a flashback to the dodgy puns of 1989, like "Everything Starts With An 'E'" by (groan!) E-Zeee Possee. The cover art recalls those ultra-crap "cyberdelic" videos of computer animations for post-rave chilling out: three little orbs go on a journey through a kosmic wormhole, you know the score. There's a woogly-oozy love ballad titled "X-Tasy", and another tune that shouts-out to "my XTC people". Short of covering the Shamen's "Ebeneezer Goode', Missy couldn't be more blatant about where her head's at these days.

But where other "B-Boys On E" producers do little more than tack on a few techno-y sounds, Timbaland & Missy's production on So Addictive feels permeated with the MDMA vibe, electric with it. The sound is like a hyper-real painting, so sharply contoured and glossy that just listening makes you feel that you've been dosed. Elliott's's forte is vocal arrangements: songs like "One Minute Man" teem with a swarm of multitracked micro-Missies distributed across 3D space. Timbaland's endlessly inventive beats offer a whole new bag of tricks for others to nick. "Get Ur Freak On" is a pure drum'n'bass roller, but with a dark-and-daft playfulness that went AWOL from jungle sometime in 1994. And there's even a full-on house tune. "4 My People", one of the few cuts where Timbaland relinquishes the controls (in this case, to Nisan & D-Man), is a chugging monstergroove that cuts suddenly from pumping euphoria to edgy paranoia, as if crossing that one-pill-too-many line.

And yet for all So Addictive’s brilliance, there's something lacking: call it "vision". Missy's never exactly been a "deep" artist, more a rare female recruit to the lineage of cartoon freaks like Bootsy and Busta Rhymez. Mostly she boasts about how freaky and funky and shagadelic she is. Her real genius is the way she says stuff: timing, intonation, contorting the words in her mouth, vocal syncopation that's as virtuoso as anything Timbaland does with beats. But if you'd thought maybe MDMA might have opened her up a bit (for the record, she steadfastly denies trying the drug) there's little sign of E-motional growth. True, there's a hidden track, a lovely slink of modern gospel featuring The Clark Sisters. But for all its talk of "pressing on to higher ground", elsewhere there's scant evidence of a new spiritualized consciousness. Missy's idea of God is, frankly, childish: a sort of agony uncle in the sky. Always there to listen uncomplainingly to her complaining, but never expecting anything in return, like attending church on Sundays (Missy, "witness for Jesus" and true believer, admits she never goes), let alone forsaking vice, deferment of gratification, humility, good deeds, or sacrifice of any sort. Like gangsta rappers who thank the Creator extravagantly in the sleevenotes, then spend the entire CD breaking commandments like Sin's going out of fashion, Missy appears to think she can have her disco biscuits and eat them too.

No comments: