The day after delivering an exhilarating medley of her biggest hits at the MTV Video Music Awards, Missy Elliott sat in the tub of her hotel suite, overcome by tears.
“I’m so emotional,” she said over the phone. “I’m just thankful and grateful. Totally grateful.”
That gratitude comes amid a whirlwind week for Elliott, now 48, in which the groundbreaking polymath dropped “Iconology,” her first collection of new music in 14 years — the EP has been atop iTunes’ rap charts since its release — and was finally honored with MTV’s prestigious Video Vanguard award after years of fervent campaigning by her fans.
As Elliott would say, she’s “humbly grateful” for the moment she’s having. When the Virginia-born rapper-singer-producer emerged in summer 1997 with her forward-thinking solo debut, “Supa Dupa Fly,” Elliott announced herself as rap’s avant-garde firestarter. She paired futuristic hip-hop beats, lush soul grooves and traditional gospel harmonies with wildly imaginative visuals that were events within themselves.
In her music videos, Elliott two-stepped in outer space, hung from a chandelier, faced decapitation, morphed into a disco ball, put her flip on “Tron,” swallowed a car and oozed effortless swag while dressed in a giant trash bag. That she did so while cosplaying as characters we rarely saw black women assume — superhero, cyborg, Barbie doll, anime mutant — only added to her legend.
But after 2005’s “The Cookbook” — her first release to not reach platinum status — Elliott mostly retreated from the spotlight. Although she kept busy as a producer and writer, for the better part of the last 14 years we really only heard her courtesy of guest verses and the occasional single drop.
Her hiatus was in part due to a battle with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune illness that affects the thyroid. “I had to deal with an illness that took up some time,” she told me back in 2011. “I just stayed behind the scenes, and time just kind of passed.”
In fact, her appearance with Katy Perry at the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show may have been the first time many music fans had ever seen (or even heard of) Elliott.
But her influence is undeniable. She reinvented R&B with the work she and longtime friend Timbaland did with the late Aaliyah. And she’s spent the entirety of her career creating hits for others — Janet Jackson, Monica, Jazmine Sullivan and Ciara are among frequent collaborators — and is still in-demand today, writing tracks for Ariana Grande, Mary J. Blige and Lizzo.
Elliott spoke with The Times about her big year, why she only feels like she’s just made it and, yes, what is next for her.
How’d you spend the day leading up to your performance?
Well, I was sick. I picked up some kind of cold. I was getting fed all types of Halls and Ricolas. I was sick of seeing tea.
In the last two years, you released one single, “I’m Better,” and then silence. Now, between the “Throw It Back” video, the “Iconology” EP and your VMAs performance, is it safe to say you’re actually, officially back?
Everybody had been been like, “OK, that’s cute, girl, we have that one record now [“I’m Better”]. You leave us sitting for another two years?” This time, I wanted to do more than one song and more than one video, and see what happened.
So there other visuals coming from “Iconology”?
I am most definitely coming with something else.
Your VMAs Video Vanguard performance was as over-the-top as expected. How did you pull it off with all of the costume changes and set pieces?
My chest is still on fire because ... it was a lot. I wish there was a handheld camera so y’all could see what was truly going on behind the stage — especially when I got pulled into that cornfield [for 2003’s “Pass That Dutch”]. I remember being pulled into the cornfield and them trying to pull my pants off where the Velcro was sticking. I had to get out of one outfit, climb up a corn stalk, put on a straw hat and come down from there in time for “Lose Control,” and I’m trying to get my shirt off and pulling it open like the Incredible Hulk. If people could really see what was happening, they would gag. It was crazy, but through the grace of God we got through it.
What do honors like this mean to you?
I’ve been trying to soak it in. I remember being interviewed for Marie Claire [earlier this year] and the writer asked me when did I feel like I had made it? And I said to her, “Just now.”
Just now? Really?
Just now, because all of this time I was just working. There was never a point of stopping. It was never like, “OK, you just won this.” For me, it’s like, “What’s next, what’s next?” So these honors are showing me that the hard work I’ve put in is not in vain. It’s very emotional for me.
Plus, it’s not just the awards but genuine anticipation from the public over what you will do next.
Totally. Especially when you come from a generation before. It’s scary, because you really don’t know what people will like, especially a new generation. The other day, before the [VMAs], I saw seven of my records back on the iTunes charts. It’s a true blessing for the music to be received.
In the announcement for “Iconology” you said you wanted to throw it back to a time when music just felt good and made us want to dance. Did you feel like something is missing from what you’ve been hearing now?
I mean, shoot, I’ve been saying that for 20-some years now. There are a lot of underground artists that I listen to, who are doing something different and make people want to dance. I think we’re kind of getting back to it. I just love records that make me want to dance.
You’ve said the EP was to test the waters. What were you unsure of?
I wanted to see if people would go on about their business or if they would stop and listen. The reaction to it just tells me that people are wanting to hear some Missy stuff. And that’s good to know.
So with that knowledge, what are you going to do with that? What does the next year look like for Missy?
I’m coming out with some more stuff this year. I won’t say dates, but I have something in mind.
If you could go back, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself at the beginning of your career?
The 2019 Missy would tell ‘90s Missy to continue to go on the path that she’s going, because even back then I was proud to be black. I would tell that Missy to not change her size — even though there ain’t nothing wrong with losing some pounds. I would tell her to continue to be comfortable in her skin and don’t follow people. That inspiration will keep you uplifted and make you want to keep pushing. Create your own way. I didn’t listen to the radio and I didn’t watch TV because I knew if I did then I would start to mimic what I heard, so I cut all of that off. That’s how me and Timbaland were able to create a sound that people hadn’t heard before.