Missy Elliott: Cooking up a storm

Her new album confirms her position as the queen of hip-hop. She tells Russell Myrie her recipe for success
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The Independent Culture

Elliott needs this album to be a big success, and The Cookbook is capable of returning her to the heights she temporarily left with her last album, 2003's This Is Not a Test. The latter boasted Elliott classics such as the raw "Wake Up", the dancehall-flavoured "Keep It Movin'" and "Is This Our Last Time", which has the feel of Eighties soul. But it wasn't an all-conquering, trailblazing triumph like its two predecessors, 2002's Under Construction and Miss E... So Addictive from the previous year. That may be the reason her production partner Timbaland isn't all over the new album as he was on her previous five offerings. He produces a few tunes – including "Lose Control", the first single – but this is the first time they haven't collaborated extensively on a Missy Elliott album.

"I was in a comfortable place for this album; with the last album I don't think I was in a comfortable place," Elliott says as she fiddles with the two large packets of bubble gum on the table next to her.

Clad in a green Adidas tracksuit (which isn't from the Respect Me line, her forthcoming collaboration with Adidas), with a matching bandana and cap, Elliott is in a light-hearted mood and is rightly confident about The Cookbook. "With this album, I was comfortable but scared at the same time, 'cos Tim allowed me to use other producers and he was OK with that. I want people to know that me and Tim are always going to do records together, but as time goes on you have to expand and see what it's like to try different styles."

Miss E...So Addictive was a turning point thanks largely to its classic first single, "Get Ur Freak On". Its Bollywood-style samples and hypnotic chorus helped it to make a big impression with the pop audience that had previously only flirted with Elliott, and caused a fleeting craze in hip-hop and R&B for anything that sounded vaguely Indian.

Under Construction was equally momentous. Elliott unveiled her new slimline look, and her protégé Tweet had been well received by the soul crowd and was doing good business for Elliott's Gold Mind label. Memorably, it was Under Construction that prompted the clothes company Gap to team up Elliott with Madonna for an advertising campaign.

When Supa Dupa Fly was released in 1997, hip-hop was just about to take over the world. Suge Knight and P Diddy had shown corporate America just how much money could be made from hip-hop, and the back-to-basics Rawkus Records was just beginning to get a rep with artists like Mos Def and Company Flow (many Rawkus fans would criticise Elliott for what they saw as her lyrical deficiencies). With singles such as "Sock It 2 Me" and "Beep Me 911", Elliott did more than any other artist to blur the lines between hip-hop and R&B. At first, it was difficult to put your finger on exactly what it was she was doing. But it worked. It wasn't just her videos that were widely copied. Her quirky ad-libs and peculiar, eccentric beats were also the subject of the highest form of flattery.

But of course this wasn't an overnight occurrence. The preceding years had seen her pay many dues. She received her main music business training from DeVanté Swing of swingbeat heroes Jodeci (she can be heard rapping in a faux Jamaican accent on Jodeci's "Won't Waste You" from their 1992 album Diary of a Mad Band). "Working with DeVanté was, um, a different kinda thing," she says, choosing her words carefully. "But from a bittersweet moment I learnt a lot of things from him. DeVanté had forbidden us from listening to the radio and from watching TV. There were a lot of things we couldn't do. But it's crazy 'cos out of a situation like that I think we learnt more creativity 'cos we didn't get a chance to see what was hot, what videos was hot, and to end up mimicking it. We ended up having to create our own style."

Her childhood surroundings also played a large part in fostering her creativity. Who knows what's in the water in Virginia because besides Elliott, Timbaland and The Neptunes, newer blood like Nottz (who will be working with Dr Dre on his swansong Detox) has emerged.

"We always got music real late," Elliott explains. "New York would always have the hot records but by the time we got it they would have already moved on to the next thing. Everything was late coming to Virginia. We were very far away and very closed off. A lot of the kids were probably forbidden from even listening to R&B music 'cos down south they're more into church music. They're very spiritual, you know. Go to church Sunday, go to church Tuesday, go to church Thursday," she laughs. "I don't think we did it consciously but because we didn't have the music to listen to we became creative."

All of the above undoubtedly helped her when the real big break happened. Following R Kelly's first underage sex scandal with the late, great Aaliyah, Elliott and Timbaland were charged with the job of making her second album, One in a Million, as successful as the first. They did their jobs well, and the album "gave us the chance to get our music out there and have people enquire who we were, who Timbaland and Missy was".

Other songs helmed by Elliott, such as SWV's "Can We", further established her in the consciousness of hip-hop and R&B fans. Since then, she and Timbaland have made some of the best beats in black music bar none. Whether or not they work together as closely in the future depends on how well the album sells. The harsh truth is that he's not really missed.

The Cookbook's guestlist is one reason why, despite his few good contributions, Timbaland's absence fails to create a gaping hole. Even though Elliott doesn't rely on collaborations, her albums are always guest heavy. The best collaboration can be found on "My Struggles", where Elliott touches on the brutal domestic violence she witnessed growing up. The track features Grand Puba from true-school heroes Brand Nubian, and Mary J Blige rapping.

"One of my favourite Mary records of all time is the joint with her and Grand Puba on 'What's The 411'," Elliott says. "Once Puba got on there I was like 'We gotta take this back, let me get Mary', and luckily she was willing to rap. I think the last time I heard Mary even rap was on 'What's The 411' so it's great to hear her rhyming again and she had a lot of fun doing it too." Another legend taking part is old-school lyricist Slick Rick who, depending on who you talk to, hails from Hackney or Wimbledon. "Irresistable Delicious" uses the beat from Rick's "Lick The Balls".

"Grand Puba and Slick Rick are most definitely two of the people who I can remember just listening to. I always loved Grand Puba's voice and I thought instead of me running out and getting the new hot rapper I should do something that I can just feel. I've been a big Grand Puba fan over the years. I try to get the artists who opened doors and who are icons in the hip-hop world."

Even though the sentiments about Puba are pure, she actually does have one of the hottest new rappers on her album. Houston's Mike Jones guests on "Joy", the record's opener. The new album also sees her finally collaborate with The Neptunes. Pharrell produces and provides the hook on "On and On", her "street single".

Her forthcoming projects include a couple of songs for Whitney Houston's next comeback album, a female group called Wicked and the album from Jessica, the winner of her reality TV series The Road To Stardom With Missy Elliott.

"I think Jessica will be very raw, we have a single probably dropping very soon. With rappers, of course, everybody don't necessarily go through the shootouts and stuff like that, but there are people that do. Maybe she can be that role model for kids that are in the hood selling drugs. She used to sell drugs but was like 'This ain't cool and this is why I chose to find another job, because I want to get off that corner and I want to get my family out the hood'."

If Elliott can manage such a move for herself, there's no real reason why she can't make it happen for someone else. She is the biggest female hip-hop artist by a large margin. Long may she reign.

'The Cookbook' is out on Monday on Atlantic