Everybody remembers the first time they saw Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott: suspended in the center of a fish-eye lens, as if floating, enveloped in a giant inflatable trash bag suit, adorned with gold hoop earrings and wraparound helmet sunglasses. This is how the genre-bending rapper appears in the music video for her debut single, "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)", and it was an indelible as entrance as any. It's an image that, to this day, immediately conjures up the song's laid-back flow and genius level rhymes.
In 1997, coming off of almost a solid decade of dead serious gangsta and politically conscious backpack rap, in one instant, Missy Elliott gave us permission to be weird, left-of-center, and downright funny, all without an ounce of gimmickry or novelty. Here was a woman who didn't fit our preconceived notions of femininity, who wore fingerwaves instead of a weave, outlandish color schemes and cutting-edge streetwear instead of just Gucci and Versace. Elsewhere in the video, Missy dons a pair of safety-orange rubber overalls as she leads a pack of all male dancers; they mimic her moves, giving a sense of both sensuality and androgyny. It's flashy, freaky, and fun, and was the perfect starting-block of Elliott's massive assault on popular culture, which, now entering its third decade, seems poised to reignite the world of hip-hop.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Elliott's first album, Supa Dupa Fly, a record that completely changed the context of what a rapper could accomplish, be they male or female, mainstream or underground. The album is equal parts virtuosic flow, biting humor, ultra-cool aesthetics, and groundbreaking musicianship. It arguably single-handedly spawned the next 10 years of mainstream hip hop while influencing an entire generation of artists.
Supa Dupa Fly begins, in a geniusly ironic touch, with a guest intro by Busta Rhymes, who was also indomitable at the time. Then, as if to say "Oh, you think he's weird?", the rest of the album contrasts Busta's rapid-fire delivery with Elliott's now-famous half-bar almost-drawl. If Elliott's voice itself were the only that thing set her apart, she would still be revered within the pantheon of hip-hop today, but really, the ideas and theories that birthed Supa Dupa Fly are what make it such an undeniable classic—and those ideas are still being explored within today's cultural landscape, if not more so than they were in the late 90s.
Of course, Elliott has always benefited from the help of master collaborators. Her right-hand man and producing partner, Timbaland, is a large reason as to why Supa Dupa Fly's tracks still sound forward-thinking: As she raps on "The Rain," "We so tight that you get our styles tangled." And Hype Williams, who directed the videos for "The Rain," "Sock It 2 Me," and many other Missy Elliott classics, played a big part in shaping her visual language. However, their grand endeavors would have fallen flat without an artist who had both the vision to match and the talent to execute their ideas. Both Timbaland and Williams definitely owe parts of their own popularity and success to their role in Elliott's catalogue, and vice versa. But Elliott's groundbreaking place in music history is as much thematic as aesthetic.
Sex appeal, whether aggressive, cloying, or anything inbetween, has always been a part of hip-hop, and popular music in general. Society would expect a plus-sized woman to be stripped of her sexuality, but Elliott's desire to flaunt hers while also consistently and deliberately diverting the male gaze was nothing short of revolutionary. Even before sex-positive anthems like "One Minute Man" and "Work It", Supa Dupa Fly's "Sock It 2 Me" was Elliott's call to action.
Elliott used her body, costumes, lyrical genius and sense of humor to craft a niche that remains her own to this day. Instead of using her sexuality to create a fantasy, she used it to create a mystery.
While her female rap contemporaries, like her frequent collaborator Lil Kim (whose spitfire verse on album opener "Hit 'Em Wit' Da Hee" sets the album's more sensual tones) embraced a more traditional image of femininity and gender, Elliott used her body, costumes, lyrical genius and sense of humor to craft a niche that remains her own to this day. Instead of using her sexuality to create a fantasy, she used it to create a mystery. "Do it long bro with a back stroke / My hormones jumpin' like a disco" Elliott raps on "Sock It 2 Me" with a bottomless reserve of confidence and charm. Womanly, yet not traditionally "feminine", she showed that you can have a "cute face [and] chubby waist" (as she describes herself in 2005's "Lose Control") and also be seen as a fully sexual being, long before body positivity became a talked-about social issue within pop culture.
Another aspect of Missy Elliott and Supa Dupa Fly's enduring legacy is a sense of escapism, fantasy, and reality bending in both the production and the album's iconic music videos. Technology, sci-fi, fantasy and comic book references have always been an intrinsic part of Elliott's work. With Supa Dupa Fly, she helped usher in a wave of Afrofuturism—an artistic movement wherein pan-African culture is expressed through science fiction, historical fiction, magical realism and other fantastical genres. For instance, in the "Sock It 2 Me" video, Elliott, Lil Kim and Da Brat battle space aliens while dressed as characters similar to the Mega Man video game franchise. These are recurring themes throughout her career, from her album covers (on 2001's Miss E... So Addictive, Elliott is seen framed by what could be extraterrestrial landmines, or nanobots covered in metal spikes, while the video for that album's lead single, "She's a Bitch" is an ultra-slick cyberpunk smorgasbord).
By the early 00s, Afrofuturism had already been a part of the African-American creative landscape for decades, and Elliott was undeniably a main contributor to a new era within the movement. When TLC's "No Scrubs" video blew up MTV, you could see the aesthetic Hype Williams had spent the previous few years honing on Missy Elliott videos. Suddenly, smaller R&B groups like 702 and Blaque were adopting the space age look, bolstered by a general Y2K visual language that was popular at the time for obvious reasons. You can trace today's renewed Afrofuturism heyday—think Solange's otherworldly headdresses and stage sets, FKA twigs' otherworldly electro R&B, or Shabazz Palaces' psychedelic space funk—straight to Missy Elliott.
That being said, if Missy is always one step ahead of the curve, and Supa Dupa Fly still sounds like it could have come out yesterday, what would a true Missy Elliott comeback look like in 2017? Since her surprise guest spot during Katy Perry's Super Bowl halftime show in 2015, Elliott has been slowly inching her way back into the public eye. She's released two sleek, incredibly potent singles (2017's "I'm Better" and last year's "WTF (Where They From)") which have more than proven that, over 12 years since her last record (2005's The Cookbook), the artistic foundation she laid with her very first album is still as valid as ever. Let's face it, the post-Trump need for fearless feminist artists, unapologetic sex positivity, and music that challenges body and gender norms is hopefully as high as it will ever be. Whatever the future may hold for Missy Elliott, her cultural relevance is forever enshrined in hip-hop lore—and has been since she uttered her very first verse.
Cameron Cook is a writer based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.