Billboard Cover: Missy Elliott on Her Comeback -- 'There Is Only One Missy'

Ruven Afanador
Missy Elliott photographed on Nov. 6, 2015 at Root Drive-In Studio in New York City.

A couple of weeks before the world will get to see it, Missy Elliott stops by the Manhattan headquarters of her label, Atlantic, to give staff a sneak peek of the video for her hypnotically percussive, Pharrell Williams-produced new single, “WTF (Where They From),” the latest in a series of highly conceptual, future-shock clips that revolutionized the visual language of pop music. It’s also the 44-year-old hip-hop legend’s first real single in 10 years. But the wait is going to be just a tiny bit longer. “I’m going to tinkle real quick,” Elliott says cheerfully, with just a hint of a Southern accent. “Won’t take me a minute.”

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When she returns, her cousin Corte Ellis, a songwriter, pulls a MacBook out of a rolling bag and hands it to the MC. She cues up the clip, and “WTF” roars through the Godzilla-scale speakers. Onscreen, a dizzying array of imagery and superb choreography flies by: Elliott in a disco-ball jumpsuit, Elliott leading a squad of zombie dancers and, coolest of all, Elliott and Williams transformed into extremely funky marionettes. “You must be real important to have her show it to you,” co-director Dave Meyers, who has collaborated with Elliott since 2001’s “Get Ur Freak On,” later says to me. “She has had that shit on lockdown!”

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You can’t blame Elliott for keeping the clip close to her vest: “WTF” marks a delicate, pivotal moment in her career. By taking an entire decade between albums, she has entered a rare zone, one once notoriously occupied by Dr. Dre, Axl Rose and D’Angelo, and one that’s fiendishly difficult to emerge from gracefully. As Elliott sees it, the current attention-span-challenged culture is just waiting for her to fail, and the only way to successfully negotiate that hazard is to come out with a record so hot it can’t be denied. “I have to be very careful,” she says. “It’s different now. People are quick to be like, ‘You’re irrelevant, you’re a flop, you’re washed up.’ ”

The legacy she’s protecting is difficult to overstate. With her debut single, 1997’s MTV-dominating “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” she established a tough, minimal sound and woozy, Technicolor visual style that to this day feels like it was beamed back from the distant future. “Missy Elliott is badass,” says Demi Lovato, who featured Elliott on the 2011 track “All Night Long.” “She is so creative, groundbreaking and talented. Collaborating with her was a highlight of my career.” On her own tracks and hits that she and Timbaland crafted for members of their crew (including Ginuwine, Tweet and especially the late Aaliyah), Elliott reinvented hip-hop and R&B, skewing tempos and rhythms in ways that initially made radio’s gatekeepers uncomfortable. “When we did [Aaliyah’s] ‘One in a Million,’ they wouldn’t play it at first,” she recalls of the tune, which went on to become the biggest song on R&B/hip-hop radio for six straight weeks in 1996. “Because they said it was off -- the rhythm, the melody, everything.”

In some ways, the world has changed so much since her commercial peak -- 2002’s Under Construction, which has sold 2.2 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music -- that it feels to Elliott like she’s starting over. In 2012, she quietly released two Timbaland-produced tracks (“9th Inning” and “Triple Threat”) straight to iTunes, in a move that she describes as “seeing what the climate was.” When the songs didn’t make an impact, she once again retreated from releasing music of her own.

“WTF,” though, followed Elliott’s triumphant return as Katy Perry’s guest at the 2015 Super Bowl, and the song and video racked up 3 million streams their first day out. Now there’s the promise of an album, likely out in 2016, full of tracks that she has been working on with Williams and Timbaland -- or as Elliott puts it, “the only two producers that understand me.” “When I go like this,” she says, referring to her total commitment to the single and the new phase that it promises, “you know that it’s something I totally believe in.”

After screening the video, Elliott kicks back on a cream-colored sofa and takes a sip from a bottle of Coke Zero. For someone who once famously bragged about the size of her badonk-a-donk-donk, she’s tiny -- barely 5-foot-2 -- but an outsize presence. That vibe is enhanced by the look she’s rocking today: alligator-skin Prada baseball cap pulled low over geometric bangs, huge D&G sunglasses, metallic lips, a multitiered diamond-studded ring that vaguely recalls the Sydney Opera House and a pair of bejeweled high-tops. She’s friendly, if reserved. But she soon warms, and her smile and disarming laugh begin to come easy. “She’s a real character,” says Williams, who first heard about Elliott way back in high school (they’re both from Virginia Beach, Va., as is Timbaland) and met her not long after. “That never turns off! She’s always that -- the way that she is on the record is her personality.”

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From Elliott’s perspective, at least, she didn’t simply disappear after 2005, when she released her most recent album, The Cookbook, and scored her last hit, “Lose Control.” (The track went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped spark the EDM boom by sampling Cybotron’s early techno classic, “Clear.”) She never stopped working, writing and producing songs for artists including Fantasia, Monica and Keyshia Cole -- all of whom she helped reach the top five on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart -- and recording a vast amount of her own material. “If I wanted to do The Missing Files of Missy Elliott, I have probably six albums just sitting there,” she says. She’s the first to admit that she didn’t think the break was going to be this long. “But it was much needed,” she says. “People hadn’t realized that I haven’t just been an artist, I’ve been a writer and a producer for other artists. When you’re writing that much, your brain is like a computer. You have refresh it.”

Elliott says the last vacation she took before her hiatus was “in mid-2000,” and she believes that the grueling schedule took a serious toll on her health. After she began losing an alarming amount of weight in 2008, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. “It causes hair loss, your eyes bulge,” she says. “My blood pressure was always up from just overworking.”

Sharaya J, a talented rapper-dancer whom Elliott signed to her Goldmind label, began working with Elliott around this time and witnessed the impact that the disease had on the MC. “It started to change her way of life,” she says. “There were physical changes, extreme headaches, extreme weight loss. What that does to a person, being a public figure and knowing people are looking, judging? That’s a tough thing.”

With the aid of medication, Elliott eventually managed to get her condition under control. But in some ways, she wasn’t at ease in the spotlight to begin with. “She is a force, but she’s also shy, really shy,” says Sharaya. “I always say to her, ‘When I look at you as an adult, I can see you as a little kid.’ ” In fact, the anxiety that Elliott wrestles with began sometime in childhood. “I was always feisty, always that kid that would be on the porch with a hairbrush singing or rapping,” she says. “I got more shy as I got older and realized people could be laughing at me, or judging me.”

In at least one part of her creative practice, that sense of privacy extends even to her closest collaborators. “I never record in front of anybody,” she says. “[Even] Tim has never seen me record a day in his life.” Early on she worked with an engineer, but for many years now she has recorded her parts alone -- with two exceptions. “It’s just me and my little Yorkies, Poncho and Hoodie.”

Consciously or not, the process mirrors the way she immersed herself in music as a kid. Growing up, she experienced a lot of violence. She has spoken before about surviving sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin and regularly witnessing her father beating her mother; she and her mom finally left after he pulled a gun when Elliott was 14. During those episodes, she would escape into music. “My room would become a whole other world once I shut that door,” she says. “That’s why I believe my videos are so important to me. It was Alice in Wonderland: my bed, my closet -- it would all turn into something else. And I would write and sing and block out whatever was going on.”

A few years later, she had formed the Salt-N-Pepa-inspired crew Sista, with a young Timbaland producing. DeVante Swing of Jodeci signed the group and installed it in a house in Rochester, N.Y. “He had a lot of rules that ended up working to our benefit,” says Elliott. “He didn’t allow us to watch videos, and he didn’t allow us to listen to the radio.” Without external influences, Elliott and Timbaland channeled what came naturally to them -- a sound that would be recognizable to anyone who heard an Aaliyah or early Elliott track. “People thought it was something new, but we had been doing that sound for years.”

Today, Elliott owns six houses (“two in Virginia, two in Miami, one in New Jersey and one in Atlanta”) and a world-class collection of exotic cars (including a Ferrari her mom drives to church, very slowly). But she still keeps her circle small. The list of people she trusts about music is especially short, extending not far beyond Timbaland, Williams, Sharaya and her cousin Ellis. She credits her mother, Pat Elliott, with helping her avoid some of the pitfalls too many of her peers have fallen into. “My mama don’t play,” says Elliott. “When it’s time for taxes to come around, she’s like, ‘Yo, taxes are due. I’m on my way to send your money off.’ ” (Elliott wasn’t always good with her finances: “When I first started in the business, I spent so much! Staying in a Trump Hotel for two years, spending eight Gs a month just living.”) She sees her Jersey home, which is “in the mountains,” as a sanctuary. “I can come to the city and hear the horns and all the traffic back and forth,” she says. “But when I leave there, I can go [to New Jersey] and relax my mind.” There is one less-than-restful element to the place, though. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “there are mad bears out there.”

Watch Missy Elliott & Pharrell Lose Control As Puppets In Her 'WTF' Video

Elliott credits the beginning of her re-emergence to a call that she got from Williams in 2014. “He was just, ‘Yo, whatcha doing?’ ” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m doing some music here and there.’ ” Williams suggested they get into the studio, an idea she took especially seriously because of the timing. “ ‘Happy,’ ” she says with a laugh, “was, like, on fire right then.”

It took a few months for Williams to carve out time in his schedule, but eventually he flew Elliott out to Los Angeles for six days of highly productive sessions. “I was willing to assist her in any way possible,” says Williams, “all the way down to doing music if that’s what she wanted me to do.”

But his wasn’t the only life-changing phone call Elliott got in 2014. Katy Perry’s team floated the idea of having her come out during the Super Bowl halftime show -- what the MC assumed would be a quick cameo. Then Perry got on the phone. “She said, ‘I want you to do three of your records,’ ” recalls Elliott. “And I’m just like, ‘Did she say three?’ ”

After rumors of the surprise began to circulate online, Elliott’s anxiety mounted. The night before the game, it metastasized into a full-blown panic attack: “Like, IVs in my arm, everything,” she says. “Nobody knew.” The day of the show, she remembers being just offstage and hearing the opening riff of “Get Ur Freak On.” “I said, ‘If I can get over this step, then I know all my dance steps will be on point,’ ” she recalls. “I know it was nothing but the grace of God that lifted me up and took me through that performance.” (Says Sharaya: “Me and Missy are really spiritual people. We wait on God to show us the way.”) Elliott sold nearly 350,000 song downloads by the end of the following week alone.

By then, “WTF” was the clear pick for her next single. But the video required more time than anyone expected. It took four months just to get the puppets made, and Elliott and co-director Meyers later decided to go with an even more ambitious concept than they had originally envisioned. “We did so many different treatments,” she says. “It was hard because we’re like, ‘We did that before.’ ‘Oh, that ain’t hot.’ We knew that we just had to push the envelope.”

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Elliott doesn’t watch much TV, and when she listens to the radio it’s usually an underground hip-hop station rather than chart-busting hits, which she thinks have grown safe and same-y. “There are some great records out there,” she says. “But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to hear that a lot of songs sound alike.” She does like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and J. Cole. When asked about Nicki Minaj, who is clearly influenced by Elliott, she mock-innocently replies, “Oh, she is?” (Speaking to her influence generally, she adds, “Unfortunately, breaking news, there is only one Missy.”) Still, she would love to see more woman MCs on the charts -- when she was coming up, that was much more common. “It was me, [Lil’] Kim, Lauryn [Hill], Eve, Foxy [Brown], Trina,” she says. “There’s room for so many. It’s important.”

As for what’s next, Elliott wants to tour, which she hasn’t done in a major way in years. “I’ve done mad shows, but my last amazing tour was me, Beyoncé and Alicia [Keys, in 2004]. I’d love to do one with B.” And when will the album be out? “I want to say 2016 but I don’t want to give a time. Nowadays you say a time, they’ll stone you.”

It’s not the first time she has promised an album -- she scrapped a planned LP in 2008 -- but she promises that things are different now (“Yes, yes, definitely”). “Missy is careful about not releasing stuff unless she feels it in her gut,” says Sharaya. “She wasn’t going to make a move until she knew she had a record that was going to change the world.” Ask Williams what Elliott has in store, and he sums it up in two words: “Get ready.”

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