This story originally appeared in SPIN’s July 1999 issue. In honor of Da Real World‘s 20th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.
Celebrities may be different from the rest of us, but beneath their socks, they, too, have ugly feet. Which brings Missy Elliott to the funky, downtown New York nail salon Rescue. Sandal weather is just around the corner, as is the June release of Da Real World, the long-awaited follow-up to Elliott’s multiplatinum debut, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly.
“For this album I wrote a lot of catchy hooks,” she says, cautiously dipping her feet in an aromatherapeutic milk bath. “They’re hot”—meaning her hooks, not her toes—”but they’re simple. My favorite’s when I say, ‘Why you all in my grill? / Can you pay my bills? / Let me know if you will / ‘Cause a chick gotta live.'”
And this particular chick’s gotten used to livin’ large. In less than two years, she’s evolved from an in-demand writer/producer to a critically lauded performer who heads her own record label, served as a hip-hop presence on 1998’s Lilith Fair, and has even rapped for the Gap. Image-wise, Elliott comes off almost cartoonish, from her tradmark “hee-ha” laugh, to her Michelin Man outfits, to making herself over as a Japanimated superheroine in her “Sock It to Me” video.
But like many comedians, her urge to provoke laughter is a mechanism for dealing with deep-rooted trauma. Elliott may look comfortable today, giggling as she hikes up her red Adidas track pants for the pedicurist, but she says she’s still haunted by memories of growing up poor in Portsmouth, Virginia. And those same feet once ran two miles in the snow to escape an abusive home life.
“My father never hit me, but he had me living in a lot of fear,” she says, looking down at her submerged ankles. “I couldn’t enjoy life like the rest of you kids. I didn’t wanna go and play, ’cause I didn’t know when I would come home and my mother would be dead. I was always scared. I was sexually abused for a whole year when I was eight. He was, like, my third cousin—16 or something. So you’d think I’d be totally, ‘Oh, I hate men!’ But I’m just careful. I can read a person quick and be like, ‘He foul’ or ‘He cool.'”
Most cool is fellow Virginian Timbaland, Elliott’s coproducer, sonic soulmate, and best friend of 12 years. “The only therapy I had was believing in God,” Elliott says. “That’s the strongest connection for me and Timbaland: We are spiritually related. I can’t compare us to anybody else, but the closest would be Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam back in the day.”
Together Elliott and Timbaland have modernized the sound of hip-hop/R&B with studio tricks, sound effects, and futuristic beats. On Da Real World, they forgo the whimsical (cooing babies and quacking duck samples) for a decidedly darker route—à la Janet Jackson‘s nasty turn on The Velvet Rope. The most surprising noise is Elliott’s punk-inspired screaming. “You been suckin’ his dick! He been tastin’ my clit!” on a catty duet with Missy protégée Lil’ Mo called “You Don’t Know”—an NC-17 retelling of “The Boy Is Mine.” Which might explain why Eminem, who makes a typically foul-mouthed cameo on “Play That Funky Music,” was attracted to the project. “I have respect for women who respect me and themselves,” he says. “Missy doesn’t try to sell herself on anything other than her musical talent.”
Still, the explicit sex and profanity isn’t what you’d expect from Elliott, a devout, churchgoing Baptist. “I go through battles where I’m like, ‘Dag, I’m still cussing on albums, and I don’t wanna cuss no more,'” she says. “Then I’m, like, ‘Well, the album’s finished.'” Elliott shrugs. “I’m trying to get it together. I stopped a lot of things—I won’t drink and I don’t smoke. But I don’t want people to be like, ‘Okay, now she’s Reverend Elliott.’ I named my album Da Real World because I talk about real, real, real topics—smoking and drinking and teens having sex. But I’m not saying, ‘Suzy, who’s 13, go hump Bobby.'”
Whether or not it warrants a “Parental Advisory” sticker, Elliott’s new album shouldn’t prove any more shocking than MTV’s soap The Real World, an admitted guilty pleasure. “Those shows always catch my attention,” she says. “I saw one where the dude called the girl a bitch, and she started fighting him and they kicked her out of the house. I was like, “Will she be mad at me, ’cause my single’s called, ‘She’s a Bitch.'”
Of course, Elliott’s definition isn’t the one found in Webster’s. “The way I’m using it is positive,” she says. “A bitch is a strong female who knows what she wants.”
Then, turning to the pedicurist, she snaps, “You got white? I want that white nail polish on my toes.”