Elliott at the top of her class with 'Test'

Missy Elliott

"This Is Not a Test!" (Elektra)

*** 1/2

The hip-hop queen has fired off three albums in three years, but she shows no signs of creative exhaustion on "This Is Not a Test!" She actually improves on last year's witty, inventive "Under Construction," remaining engaging throughout a nearly hourlong blend of rap, soul, R&B; and dance grooves.

The album, in stores Tuesday, has truth-telling lightened with humor, bunches of guest stars who never overshadow her, and clever production by Elliott and longtime musical partner Timbaland that has all manner of beeps, jingles, buzzes, whoops and popping in and out of the mix like tiny sonic jack-in-the-boxes.

Elliott's brains and personality drive a relentless barrage of observations, one-liners, pop-culture references and dashes of true-blue but not maudlin sentiment. Defying some law of nature or other, she occupies many states of being all in the same body: sexual creature, nurturing adult, clownish kid, bragging rapper, imperfect human. Never strident, she pokes at hip-hop's materialism in "Wake Up" by reassuring listeners that it's OK not to have a cellphone or "wheels that spin."

Fearlessly flipping cliches, she freshens the tired practice of self-aggrandizing skits with a bit about the perils of being recognized at the sex-toy store, which prefaces the squishy old-school funk of "Let It Bump." There's nothing here as immediately bangin' as "Work It" or "Get Ur Freak On," but the rewards of "Test!" lie in hearing Elliott doing her singular thing.

-- Natalie Nichols

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