At one point on her new album This Is Not a Test!, Missy Elliott defines her style as "old-school rap to old-school R&B." That's pretty accurate. Back in the '80s, when George Clinton and Roger Troutman spiked their funk and disco with synthesizer machines and vocoder, then cut down their verses and choruses to a series of memorable chants and shouts, black radio sounded otherworldly. But the voices themselves, no matter how transmogrified they actually were, somehow felt familiar and comforting, keeping the music from becoming too weird or inaccessible to enjoy. To make a gross generalization, the music back then managed to be innovative and populist.
That's what Elliott aspires to create: something conceptual and fun and unique -- an arty party, if you will. The cover of This Is Not a Test! finds her clad in a leather dress, posing with bulldogs, as well as three ladies with enormous Afros standing on top of a military tank. It suggests an album that is rough and aggressive, a violent emancipation. But unless you count "Toyz," on which Elliott chooses battery-operated helpmates to female orgasm over a man, "Wake Up" is the only track that explicitly preaches aural revolution. "MCs, stop the beef, let's sell," she raps before handing the mike over to Jay-Z (um, isn't he part of the problem?).
Otherwise, it's business as usual. Appropriations of hip-hop and R&B classics abound, from Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" for "Don't Be Cruel" to harking back to Shalamar's "The Second Time Around" for "Is This Our Last Time." Nothing that Elliott didn't explore more effectively on Miss E . . . So Addictive, which will probably go down in history as the authoritative document of the mainstream rap industry's brief, intense love affair with ecstasy; and Under Construction, where she first began to play with the same hip-hop icons that dominate This Is Not a Test!.
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But a straight listening won't explain the many pleasures to be found here. "Toyz" is a foray into proto-house rapture, complete with funky hard bass line and an up-tempo beat for all the dancers in the hizzouse. The first single from the album, "Pass That Dutch," skitters along a percussive track of handclaps and bass feedback. It's freaky and haunting, which may explain why it recently stalled in the lower depths of the Billboard Top 40 Singles Chart. "It's Real" is short and sweet, a simple piano melody over which she croons "It's real" as if she wants to reassure us that she's a real woman in da real world instead of a futuristic diva. Throughout, longtime collaborator Timbaland and Elliott split production duties, their respective styles meshing so completely that it's difficult to separate one (Timbaland's "Pass That Dutch") from the other (Elliott's "Toyz").
Elliott's appeal as an MC/songstress has always been beguiling, difficult to pin down. When she first shot to prominence with "The Rain," detractors quickly wrote her off as all style, no substance. Seven years later, though, it makes sense that groups like Company Flow once chided her for "bringing a go-cart to the Grand Prix." Though MTV viewers recently voted her as one of the 22 greatest MCs of all time, she's not a rapper in the familiar, lyrically obtuse sense, but in the old-school, party-rocking tradition, spitting whatever words the beat inspires. It's a formula that now seems as warm and forward-thinking as anything her '80s heroes created. If This Is Not a Test! feels slightly less fresh than the last jam, and indeed turns out to be the last in a trio of great albums, then fuck it, she's had a good run.