Missy Elliott’s debut is still rap from another dimension

Grant Rindner

As rappers have grown stranger and more willing to embrace their eccentricities, Supa Dupa Fly feels more relevant than ever 20 years after its release

While Missy Elliott is finally getting her due as a feminist icon and role model for how to never lose your sense of self in the music industry, her debut album still doesn’t get the credit it deserves for not only progressing key facets of mainstream hip hop but doing so with a sound and style that felt truly inter-dimensional. Supa Dupa Fly is so essential both for the trends it set in place in rap culture and for its inimitable sense of oddball cool that was not merely different from what other female rappers were doing at the time, but what any MC was doing before (or has been able to do after) its release.

On the album cover, Missy sits reclined, sneakers menacingly close to your face, in total command of her craft. It’s a perfect encapsulation of a record that succeeds on all the fronts of conventionally great rap records (a distinct regional sound, ace hooks, and infectious braggadocio) but does so with a language and musical style crafted by an artist who was never hamstrung by the crippling expectations of rap’s past or of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Two decades later, as rappers have only grown stranger and more willing to embrace their eccentricities, Supa Dupa Fly is even more relevant than ever.

IT HELPED USHER IN THE ERA OF MOGUL RAP

In a 1997 Spin feature, while praising her as a “Redefining Woman in hip hop,” Karen R. Good also discussed Missy the way that you might expect to read about modern day rap entrepreneurs like Rick Ross or Birdman. “Her marketing savvy borders on ingenious,” Good wrote, while also highlighting her record label and production company The Goldmind, Inc. Even the rhetoric Missy used around the album (“People think I did this for the money, but I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable,” she told Good) reflects a level of success and mastery of the game that you would hear from someone like Diddy or late-period Jay-Z. For them, rapping isn’t a means of survival – it’s a passion approached with the joy of a pastime.

But Missy owned her own enterprise before it was a necessity for hip hop’s elite; she released Supa Dupa Fly through The Goldmind around the same time that artist-owned labels like No Limit Records and Cash Money were starting to make the leap from regional buzz to national success.

Obviously boss rap requires a certain degree of boasting chops and make no mistake, Missy can flex with the best of them. “It wasn’t your money that had me all sprung out / Cause I got my own account and my bills in large amounts,” she spits on “Hit ‘Em Wit’ Da Hee”, while on “Izzy Izzy Ahh” she raps, “Drivin’ Eddie Bauer, some of y’all MCs mad I got the power.” Perhaps one of the biggest flexes on Supa Dupa Fly is that Missy’s voice is not the first voice you hear… or even the second. Busta Rhymes tackles the intro, while Lil’ Kim handles the first verse on “Hit ‘Em Wit’ Da Hee.” It’s a supreme show of confidence in an era when many rappers exhausted themselves proving their chops on debut records.

Plus, Missy brought along a whole host of co-conspirators, some of whom had their first major looks on Supa Dupa Fly. It was the album where Timbaland and Magoo had the most room to show their burgeoning skill as vocalists, and she gave airtime to both her famous collaborators (Ginuwine, Aaliyah) as well as lesser-known acts like Nicole Wray and Space. True mogul rap has always crafted new musical lanes and cast a wide net, and Missy’s debut is an exceptionally fine (and under-mentioned) example of these accomplishments.

SHE AND TIMBALAND INVENTED THEIR OWN REGIONAL FLAVOUR

Beyond that, Missy also used her album to showcase an entirely new sonic palette, much like Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Master P’s Ice Cream Man, or OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The naked bass lines (like the diced up opening of “Pass Da Blunt”), beat-boxing, and judiciously curated samples created a sound that felt incredibly fitting for a regional style we had heard elements of on Timbaland and Missy’s contributions to records like Aaliyah’s One in a Million and Ginuwine’s Ginuqine…The Bachelor but never experienced in its purest form.

In the late 90s rap was still heavily provincial, but Supa Dupa Fly balanced the best of the era’s dominant scenes. The album had southern swagger and attitude without the molasses drawl or frequent lack of substance, while also boasting East Coast craftsmanship and adroitness without the grueling feeling of an MC trying to prove their lyrical dexterity. There are plenty of samples on the album, from obvious ones like Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Peebles to subtler flips like Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” and Rufus Thomas’ “Do the Funky Chicken”, but they’re all brought into Missy and Timbaland’s musical wheelhouse organically and rearranged into something that feels like it couldn’t have possibly existed in another form. Sometimes, that’s because they’re interpolated and sung by Missy, like the hook on “The Rain”, and other times they’re just plugged subtly seamlessly into the organized chaos of Timbaland’s skittering soundscapes, like the reference to “Square Biz”.

As Elle’s Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah noted in a profile of Missy, “The geography of Virginia… also inadvertently fortified their sound. They had very little access to what was trending, and it set them free to experiment and make music from what they had.”

SHE BROUGHT INTERGALACTIC FUNK INTO RAP’S AESTHETIC

Good described Missy’s signature sunglasses as “Alain Mikli/Breakfast at Tiffany’s-meets-Mad Max,” an image that is quite apt in describing not only her eyewear but also her overall personal (and musical) aesthetic. The music video for “The Rain” is filled with Terry Gilliam-esque fisheye shots of Elliott wearing bombastic bubble suits, along with a number of show-stopping fluorescent, monochromatic outfits in bright white, stoplight yellow, and mint green. And yet that’s nothing compared to the visuals for “Sock It 2 Me”, in which Missy and Da Brat are chased by robots through space while wearing chunky, pearlescent spacesuits.

Plus, just as rap was moving into its a-bunch-of-dudes-standing-on-stage era, Missy brought choreography, and with it a sense of whimsy and purpose, back to rap shows that felt fresh and inspired. Look no further than her 1997 performance on The Chris Rock Show for proof. But what’s most impressive is how she manages to capture that futuristic oeuvre without filling the album with gimmicky synths that would sound preposterously dated today. It’s evident in small flourishes, like the tubed bass on “The Rain” or the blend of guttural and high-pitched vocoded vocal stabs on “Friendly Skies” that give the album an otherworldly quality. Sometimes all it takes is a single inspired choice to take a track like “Friendly Skies” from ho-hum slow jam to intergalactic joyride.

In a New Yorker interview, Missy told Hilton Als, “We give our music a futuristic feel. I don’t make music or videos for 1997 – I do it for the year 2000.” This is true, but her view of 2000 is the way that sci-fi artists in the 1950s envisioned it, a retro-futuristic utopia at once organic and gleaming with new technology. Or, as Missy’s protégé Nicole put it on Supa Dupa Fly’s “Gettaway”: “Sip my style till your pissy / Virgina bitch galactic.”

SHE REINVENTED THE RAP LEXICON – OFTEN WITH GIBBERISH

Supa Dupa Fly is filled with variations on Missy’s “hee-hee-haow” adlib, and throughout the record she manages to turn conventional rap language on its head and invent her own indelible dialect in the process. When she boasts “Me and Timbaland like haaa” on “Hit ‘Em Wit’ Da Hee,” the line exudes more bravado than any of her late 90s peers boasting about the size of their jewelry or the cars they drive. Her confidence is purer and even more undeniable because it manifests itself in a wholly unique way that doesn’t feel like an artist trying to keep up with the trends of the day.

The hook on “Izzy Izzy Ahh” is pure Seussian nonsense, but it works so well as a putdown because other MCs would never even think of bashing lesser artists in a way that is so baldly strange. It takes such an uncommon level of self-esteem and artistic security to make music with an alphabet that your competition isn’t using, and Missy does so over and over again on Supa Dupa Fly.

Comparing her to MCs like Da Brat and Lil Kim, who both deliver impressive verses on the album, it’s even more clear that Missy lives in her own linguistic lane. While they both offer expertly executed tough talk, Missy floats above the scene with an otherworldly cool and calm. On top of that, at a time when rap was beginning its most crassly commercial and materialistic era, Missy largely eschewed any rote boasts about her possessions. She projected an image that was more akin to the great rappers of the 80s, whose pride came in their craft, and yet she did so in a way that could only work for her.

Reading the hook of “I’m Talkin’” (“My style of rappin’ / I’m su-su-such a good rapper”) makes it seem cringe-worthy, but with her smooth delivery those bars are the equivalent of a thousand breathless MCs trying to prove their worth in a cypher. Missy has never been a jaw-dropping lyricist who weaves together dense, intricate rhymes, but as rap has moved away from pure lyricism and into a space where artists are noticed more for their holistic creativity, the world she was able to create on Supa Dupa Fly has become all the more impressive.