“Silence when I spit it out.” Performing militaristic choreography in a raw, green swampland, Missy Elliott launches saliva into the mouth of an unwitting male dancer. Courtesy of director Dave Meyers’s Matrix-esque affinities, the glob appears suspended in the air for a few seconds while Missy continues to brag about the action: “In yo’ face / Open your mouth, give you a taste.” This moment in the video for “Get Ur Freak On” makes visual the double entendres in Elliott’s catalogue, a graphic fusion of the erotic and the grotesque. She means “spit,” as in her superior lyrical fluency, but also, “spit,” as in, dripping bodily emissions into one lucky cavity.
It was the turn of the millennium, and Missy no longer had time for subtlety. Elliott had begun her career as one quarter of Sista, a girl group she cocreated in Virginia, in the early ’90s. As a producer and songwriter for artists like Aaliyah, working with Timbaland as a partner, she crafted futurist arrangements for typical subjects like love and loss. But as a solo artist, Elliott wasn’t about the immateriality of emotions: She homed in on the physical, with precise detail. She made instrumentals out of moans and grunts, and punctuated verses with Donna Summer–esque heaves and sighs.
Unlike the erotic divas of the past, the images Elliott created as companions to her music distorted, rather than enhanced, her body, a body that was big and black and went against what vixen-obsessed executives could conceive of as sexual. “Can we get kinky tonight?” she asks, wearing a gigantic, black, parachute-like suit, in the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” a song that slyly referenced ejaculation (like every other ’90s R&B song that uses the word “rain,” wink, wink). The visual for “Sock It 2 Me” showed Elliott and Da Brat dressed like primitive video-game characters, while going on about “popping mats like some Crisco.”
Released in 2001, Elliott’s third album, Miss E… So Addictive, doubled down on her mode of outrageous sexcraft. The tone was aggressive and giddy, with singing and some rapping from a true virtuoso of unplugged eroticism, along with high-profile features. Elliott rendered all men — including famous collaborators like Ludacris and Method Man — into foot soldiers for her campaign to sexual satisfaction.
The mission was also aesthetic, one that shattered any perceived restrictions on black female hypersexuality in rap and R&B. By the early aughts, nastiness, or sex without love, had emerged as an explicit agenda in the verses of ingenue MCs. Nastiness was the new etiquette. At just 18 in 1996, Foxy Brown released her debut album, Ill Na Na, on which she boasted about how both her unhinged sexuality and her artistic loyalty emasculated the men around her. The cover art for Lil Kim’s Hard Core, released one week before Brown’s album, infamously showed Kim squatting, wearing a high-cut thong, open-legged, in a rose-colored boudoir. In a Paper interview with bell hooks, Kim conjectured about the personal freedom she felt: “… When you’re younger, it’s like, ‘I don’t want you to tell your family.’ … But now it’s like, ‘We havin’ sex. Tell whoever — make sure you tell ’em how good I did it!'”
Elliott was just as nasty as her peers and just as competitive — many of the tracks on So Addictive boast of coitus as ambition, a stage on which a woman, or anybody who identified as a freak, can exceed the sexual potential of a male partner. “Show me what you got / Cause I don’t want no one-minute man,” goes the chorus of “One Minute Man.” “Get freaky, call me Madonna,” she says on “Scream a.k.a Itchin’.” Even when the album strays from either obvious metaphor or vulgar description, its focus on generalized aggression, as on “Slap! Slap! Slap!” and “Lick Shots,” insists on dominance at all times.
So Addictive finds Elliott disembodying, abstracting, and playfully obscuring the way we might think of, or even desire to see, a body in heat. The videos are accompanying, expensive texts. Elliott’s fashion had been somewhat subdued to this point — she was mostly wearing some variant of a denim or camouflage jumpsuit. The locales were pictures of certain sexual fantasies. In the “One Minute Man” motel, she meets a greased-up, reclining man. Her seduction consists of remaining fully clothed in a bedazzled denim getup, popping her head off her body, and doing a two-step while he looks on, confused but aroused. In the video for “Get Ur Freak On,” Elliott, her dancers, and her entourage are in a jungle that looks wet, and muddied-up dancers “drip” from the walls like stalagmites.
“The body of the black female, the ultimate ‘wild savage,’ elicited only complex interstices of desire and repulsion … that conveyed a sexual grotesquerie,” Janelle Hobson wrote in her landmark essay “The Batty Politic.” Using examples ranging from Serena Williams to the Hottentot Venus, Hobson examines the potential that black women have in visual culture: the possibilities of reclaiming permeability. A woman who makes herself permeable to both another body and that body’s ideas — that she is ugly, excessive, literally leaking unsavory femininity — and then reinscribes those conceptions expresses a radical sexuality. Missy Elliott’s rude, singular, and consistently sumptuous configurations of a grotesque yet desired sexual self push Hobson’s theories off a brilliant cliff. There are women so imaginative, so sexually vanguard, that the body is secondary. They can make an erotic fantasy out of much more exciting materials.