“Back to the lesson at hand,” Missy Elliott said midway through her headlining set on Friday’s opening night of the FYF Fest at Exposition Park, the rapper’s first full-length performance in the U.S. in about a decade.
Having already performed a dizzying selection of her slickest work — “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “One Minute Man” and “Get Ur Freak On” — Elliott wanted to make a point: Her absence may have been lengthy, but her influence has been everlasting.
Elliott’s impact could be felt throughout the three-day, Goldenvoice-produced festival, which in years past has drawn more than 40,000 people to the sprawling grounds surrounding Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Kehlani’s bright R&B, Frank Ocean’s commitment to perfection, Mura Masa’s euphoric genre-hopping and the embracement of Afro-futurism by Sunday night’s scheduled performer Solange all hark back to Elliott, an impressive feat considering nearly a dozen years have passed since she last released an album.
Yet when Elliott dropped “Ching-a-Ling” and “Shake Your Pom Pom” — two obscure entries from her deep canon — the songs fit in effortlessly with current trends, so much so that they could be mistaken for new offerings.
Elliott emerged 20 years ago with her forward-thinking debut, “Supa Dupa Fly,” and the Virginia-born rapper-singer-producer immediately disrupted the genre.
Then, rap’s most famous voices were split among socio-politically conscious rhymes and gangsta posturing, the latter turning deadly as a rivalry between the East and West Coast sounds crossed into real life and claimed the lives of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
The music … was so ahead, it couldn't be dated.
— Missy Elliott
Hip-hop desperately needed a flash of positivity. Enter the futuristic bounce of Elliott’s breakout debut, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).”
With the single’s accompanying video, Elliott dared you to not look away — and few could. She bopped to the music in front of a fisheye lens while wearing a giant inflated trash bag, hoop earrings and gold sunglasses in the shape of a wraparound helmet.
“Supa Dupa Fly” and the clip for “The Rain” announced Elliott as a rarity in mainstream rap: innovative and eccentric in sound and visuals.
Her records were wildly imaginative, boasting sticky hooks and exuberant beats. Meanwhile, her quirky, left-of-center videos kept fans wondering what she would do next — be it dancing in outer space, hanging from a chandelier, facing decapitation or dragging herself across a marble floor.
Part of Elliott’s magic was her ability to embrace — and exaggerate — her own eccentricities. She took the “crazy, sexy, cool” spirit of R&B/hip-hop predecessors such as TLC and merged it with the lyrical dexterity of Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa.
Her flow — a laid-back drawl that she sometimes smoothed out to a harmonious lilt or speeded up triple time in whiplash fury — stood on its own, inspiring a new generation of female rappers. But in the last decade, in which she’s battled health issues, she’s shown she may be more comfortable behind the scenes crafting beats for other artists, as her production output indicates.
However, when she’s out front, it’s on her terms.
As other female emcees — and so many pop stars — have played to the male gaze, Elliott ignored such standard grabs for attention. Instead, she explored her sensuality through sex-positive jams without conjuring up a fantasy. She celebrated her body with anthems that encouraged us to love our "cute face [and] chubby waist.”
For anyone who has ever felt less than because of color, size or sexuality, seeing a woman like Elliott — full figured, with mocha colored skin — be sensual, cool and furiously stylish with effortless confidence and charisma was particularly awe-striking.
That she often did this through music videos while playing characters we rarely saw black women assume — a superhero, a cyborg, a Barbie doll — only added to her prowess.
And at FYF Fest, it was clear that the current generation of R&B and hip-hop artists had heard her message.
Take Oakland emcee Kamaiyah, whose debut, “A Good Night in the Ghetto,” owes a debt to Elliott with its joyful tunes about the young black female experience. When she eased into her randy party stomper “Freaky Freaks,” it was hard not to imagine the 25-year-old bumping jittery romps like “One Minute Man” and “Sock It 2 Me” in her bedroom.
Then there’s Chicago poet and rapper Noname, who possesses a whimsical effervescence that draws you in the same way Elliott’s charm made her deeply relatable — even as her talent felt otherworldly.
It’s no wonder that Beyoncé, Solange, Katy Perry, Janet Jackson, Björk and Tyler, the Creator were some of Elliott’s famous fans spotted in the crowd. And as she showed Friday, this wasn’t about nostalgia but about celebrating music that’s still futuristic.
Indeed, “Pass That Dutch” is as potent a dance anthem in 2017 as it was 14 years ago, “Hot Boyz” and “All in My Grill” pair nicely with the bass-rattling trap R&B being spun now, and no doubt, there’s not a single DJ on the FYF bill who hasn’t dropped “Lose Control” at some point.
"The music … was so ahead, it couldn't be dated," she said in a video interlude Friday before emerging in a hat with one word in bejeweled letters: Icon.