Wednesday, November 25, 2009
#36. 'Don't I look like a Halle Berry poster?'
Missy Elliott "Work It"
Missy Elliott might be the most explicitly sexual pop mega star of the past 15 years. If anyone else carried on the traditions of 1980s Prince and Madonna in combining titillation and raw displays of sexual energy with the frequency that Elliott has since 1997 they certainly aren't coming to mind right now. Sure, a lot of overtly sexual music has been released since Elliott's initial outings, but little of it has the sort of substance that Elliott and her spiritual forebears, nor do the artists have the sort of singular focus on sexuality that Elliott developed during the early days of the 00s. Just looking at her singles discography between 1999 and 2003 shows well over 50% of that output - and all of her biggest hits incidently - being of a highly sexualized nature and on either side of that her profile wasn't exactly high enough to consider her the sort of driving force in pop music that she was in that three year period. I'm not complaining about the lack of variety though since not only was that period good for Elliott on a popularity level but on a level of sheer quality as well, with only the maudlin "Take Away" not having crossed my mind for inclusion at some point. So is it really any surprise the most overtly sexual of those singles is the one that comes out on top?
"Work It" might just be the most unapologetically dirty single to make the top 10 this decade, especially given that it's only real competition, Ying Yang Twins' "Wait (The Whisper Song)", topped out at #15. It's not dirty in the 'need a shower post haste' way that "Wait" is though, smutty's probably a better description all told -same idea but less depraved - but it's definitely one of the most sexual things to reach the top 5 since the heyday of Prince. I mean, this was a song that stayed at #2 in the US for 10 weeks - damn you "Lose Yourself" - while containing references to pubic trimming, promiscuity and cunnilingus so frank that they might make a whore blush. I think the key is that even while that sort of thing is going on the song never puts sexuality ahead of sounding fun. Despite the frankness of the lyrics and Missy near predatory persona the whole enterprise still feels surprisingly light and playful.
I'd give a lot of the credit on that front to Timbaland's (that's his third entry in the top 50 for those keeping score) beat, not one of his most instantly addictive pieces of work but a great foundation for the track none the less. The whistling synth hook - sampled from Blondie's "Heart of Glass" - is just as ear-catching as anything Tim was doing in the early part of the decade, and the main beat is one of his least showy but works perfectly with Missy's rapping. Towards the end when he adds the immortal bell hook from Run DMC's "Peter Piper" to the party it's an inspired move that makes the extended outro one of the best parts of the song in my estimation. Even if it's not as instantly recognizable as, say, the tabla and water-torture synths from "Get Ur Freak On" or the low flute hook from "Promiscuous" it still does just what it needs to do to keep the song from seeming too dirty in the face of it being...well, extremely fuckin' dirty.
Like I said, this is a sexual song - not necessarily sexy but intensely sexual. The thing absolutely oozes sexuality, then rubs it in your face and makes you sing along with it as it does it. That part's all on Missy though; the charisma that carries her through even the laziest of her album tracks shines even brighter when she's working on a real winner, and this is undoubtedly a winner. Given that as a rapper Missy ranges from nothing special to outright lazy she needs that charisma to make this work, and she pulls it off admirably. I don't think anyone else could have pulled off two reversed vocal sections - one in the chorus no less - with the aplomb that Elliott manages here, let alone the utter nonchalance in tossing out a line like 'call before ya come I need to shave my cha-cha' or using the term badonkadonk without sounding like a total idiot. When Missy's on she can make anything sound awesome it seems; gibberish, reversed vocals, come-ons, lame braggadocio, it all comes off so well that whatever weaknesses the song has lyrically don't show through vocally.