At the risk of shouting “Lauryn Hill” in a crowded theater: Is Missy Elliott okay? We ask because it’s hard to tell. Hip-hop radio sets its watch by her, but she doesn’t volunteer too much data about where she’s at. In a lot of ways, she seems fine –her fifth album, This Is Not a Test, is playfully sleazy, creatively reckless, and ridiculously, abstrusely, hyper-generously funky. While it lacks an instantaneous single that will rearrange the furniture in your brain like “Work It” or redraw the whole map like “Get Ur Freak On,” it’s both consistently catchy and consistently weird in all the right ways. It’s informed by dancehall and house, but beholden to no genre except the one that Elliott and producing partner Timbaland own and operate. Radio programmers will slice it up and pass it around like birthday cake.
Still, we wonder what’s up, because while Test is almost entirely about partying, it doesn’t always feel like a party. The best Elliott/Timbaland tracks employ sonic rigor to squeeze out the funk, but this one’s crunk so tight it will make your teeth grind. Even in the record’s goofiest patches, there’s a grim set to Elliott’s jaw, and when she opens up, she seemsreally vulnerable. Every coconut-crazy beat — and there are plenty of ’em, because Timbaland’s on fire here — frames a moment as discrete and bold as a comic-book panel, but Elliott can’t lose herself in any of them. As she works it, she seems to be wondering if it’s worth it.
The record opens on a down note: somber piano, tentative mid-tempo beat, Mary J. Blige wringing the blues out of stray lines from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” shout-outs to Tupac, Biggie, Big Pun, and “anyone who lost their life on 9/11.” Then lead single “Pass That Dutch” drops us right in the pressure cooker. Timbaland weaves a rhythm track out of hand claps, chain-gang moans, and horny funk-singer yelps, a trick he’ll return to repeatedly before the record’s over. The bass blares like a foghorn, and Elliott pleads, “My voice is lose / Can I get a ride on a white horse?”
Guests drop in, but Elliott speak-sings and sing-raps circles around most of them, holding her own against Elephant Man’s rich yowl and Jay-Z’s Richie Rich smirk.
“Is This Our Last Time,” a duet with rapper Fabolous, boasts a bassline so lumpy, you’ll swear she and coproducers Souldiggaz broke the Gap band out of deep freeze. But the song’s undeniable bump is a false cue: Elliott is singing about a relationship in which “the sex don’t feel the same” and neither participant knows where the mojo went. Hip-hop and R&B have produced scads of songs about rocky relationships, but the sense of simple disappointment here feels entirely new. “Toyz” is even bittersweeter — on the surface, it’s an ode to vibrators, but there’s a sad pragmatism to Elliott’s endorsement of battery-operated fulfillment. “I keep my Butterfly close when you don’t wanna be bothered,” she sings, before sighing:”I used to wish that you would love me … (Now) I don’t need no help in pleasin’ me.”
We’ve heard this from Elliott before, of course — on her breakout single, 1997’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” precipitation beads on her windshield like tears on a pillow while she raps about breaking up with a lover who’s about to dump her. But she released that songwhen she was 26, fresh out of an R&B girl group that went nowhere. Now she’s at the peak of her powers, and there’s no question about who’s get the keys to the Jeep — she does. ButTest‘s most emotional moments stem from desires unsatisfied, from the knowledge that you can’t always get what you want. In the parts of the record that won’t get played at parties, you can hear Elliott searching for a way to talk about these things. She’s a musical innovator struggling to break personal ground, a woman of many voices digging deep to find one she’s never used before.