Most hip-hop recording artists initially struggle to gain listeners' attention, but not Missy Elliott. Both on her debut recording, 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, and even on her heralded cameo on Gina Thompson's "The Thing That You Do," Elliott possessed one of the surest grips in the business. It was a confidence that enabled her to put a distinctive stamp on producer Timbaland's original and characteristically hyperactive beats. On hits like "The Rain" and "Sock It to Me," she brought a very Southern style of rapping to the mix, taking her time (the beats were catching up with her, not vice versa) and drawling to suit her fancy. Yet on "Beep Me 911," Elliott showed that she could rhyme with dexterity over drum-'n'-bass-paced beats. The Gap and Sprite ads followed soon after; the name "Missy" will never again suffer from preppy connotations.
On the cover of her debut album, she was photographed sitting on a somewhat conventional sofa with her feet up on a coffee table. On her Da Real World, she's pictured behind the kind of desk you only see in Wallpaper spreads. True to hip-hop form, Elliott's gone glitzy, but at no cost to her music. She and Timbaland have created a more consistent recording, and while there are no immediate knockouts like "The Rain," several tracks -- notably the stuttering rhythms of "Smooth Chick," the gritty but elegant harmonies of "Crazy Feelings," and the driving uptempo beats of "She's a Bitch" -- stand out.
In fact, the theme of the record is a revitalization of the word "bitch." (Elliott, though a good-humored woman -- who else would wear garbage bags as a costume in a music video? -- is starting to speak out in interviews about the resistance she's faced in the industry due to her lack of conventional sex appeal.) And although it's an assertive theme, it lacks the anger and sarcasm found in most hip-hop rebukes. The theme helps maintain the coherence amid the album's multitude of guest stars, including Big Boi of Outkast, Eminem, Lady Saw, Redman, and Aaliyah, just to name a few.
That none of the notables overshadows the star illustrates how the mainstream has come to Elliott more than the other way around; her guests sound like they're trying to fit in instead of standing out. Elliott's flow and Timbaland's rhythmic patterns keep changing, but lose little of their charm or distinction: "Dangerous Mouths" is straightforward hip hop; "Stickin' Chickens," which features Aaliyah and Da Brat, is an R&B/hip-hop hybrid; and "Crazy Feelings," with Beyonce from Destiny's Child, is a classic R&B ballad. Yet it all sounds like Missy. On her first recording, Elliott entered the mainstream on her own terms. Now, on Da Real World, she's getting comfortable with her range.
-- Martin Johnson
There are bands -- Los Lobos leaps immediately to mind -- that seem to make music as easily as the rest of us breathe, spinning endless variations from a core sound, a set of shared values, and a faith in their own musicianship. Bands like that don't seem to so much progress from album to album as simply exist, waiting for us to come along and tune in.
Luscious Jackson isn't quite in the Los Lobos league yet -- but just wait. Oh, sure, Electric Honey is more suburban dance music, no discernible improvement over 1997's Fever In Fever Out. But it's irresistible dance music, as empty-headed and exuberant as early Madonna, and what's wrong with that? Hips start flying from the opening bass line of "Nervous Breakthrough," which reanimates the much-missed funk of Deee-Lite and weds it to a Liz Phair-like guitar-pop chorus. "Alien Lover" and "Sexy Hypnotist" are hook-heavy trip pop at its best.
Crunching, long-haired guitars put some nasty punctuation on "Fantastic Fabulous" (featuring Blondie's Deborah Harry on vocals). "Country's a Callin'," maybe the best track on the album, throws together three familiar guitar hooks over an awful drum machine sample without sliding into predictability. But what Luscious Jackson really excels at is selling a mood -- a sense of adventure and fun that also exudes supreme confidence. Like Los Lobos -- or Madonna for that matter -- the band knows exactly what it's doing and where it's going at all times.
Because of its long association with the Beastie Boys and their Grand Royal label, Luscious Jackson has been maligned for Pat Boone-ing the sound but not the fury of hard-core NYC rap.
Well, golly. The bottom line is, Luscious Jackson is pouring decent, handmade grooves into the brains and bodies of a lot of kids, girls and boys alike, who would otherwise be listening to some truly heinous corporate monstrosity. And, really, the Beastie Boys are a bit too much. Sometimes. Aren't they?
Luscious Jackson performs on the Main Stage of Lilith Fair 1999 Tuesday and Wednesday, July 13 and 14, at Shoreline Amphitheater, 1 Amphitheater Parkway (at Rengstorff), Mountain View. Main Stage performances begin at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $31.50-76; call (650) 967-3000.
-- Brian Alcorn