The month of May delivered unto us hope: after releasing “I’m Better” at the start of the year, Missy Elliott delivered a remix of the single, featuring Lil Kim, Eve, and Trina. Add to this her June Elle cover, word of an upcoming album and documentary, and reports that Elliott has been auditioning new dancers (for what we will assume is a world tour), and the message is clear: the rapper/dancer/producer is the second coming of Christ, and will deliver us all accordingly.
Or so we can hope.
Of course, Elliott owes us nothing. After releasing “WTF” with Pharrell following her Super Bowl performance back in 2015, fans and critics went bananas accordingly and celebrated what they believed to be her comeback. And the thing is, she never “went” anywhere. Yes, her last record Respect M.E. dropped over a decade ago (in 2006, to be specific), and true, she stepped out of the spotlight, but at no point did Elliott ever become irrelevant. She also didn’t crash and burn, nor did she hit self-destruct before disappearing herself. She merely ascended to another plane—like Jesus Christ himself—leading us to believe that one day, she’d return.
Which makes sense when you remember that Missy Elliott built her career on a platform ages ahead of its time. From her 1997 debut on, she rapped unapologetically and creatively about power (not empowerment—power’s watered-down cousin), about partying, about pot, about sex, and about the respect she knew she was owed. She made music that reflected her wit and her intelligence and her beautiful brand of self-awareness that most of us still try and aspire to. Her songs were inclusive, all-encompassing, and fucking good. She collaborated generously, delivered punchlines brilliantly, and only ever followed her own lead. As Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah perfectly writes in Elle: “Missy Elliott’s work doesn’t deny death, or poverty, or bad times, but it pushes for recovery.”
“In her most recent single, ‘I’m Better (feat. Lamb),’ the chorus circles around and gets repeated with a robotic flow,” Ghansah continues. “‘I’m better, I’m better, I’m better.’ …This is not a boast from her to her fans; it is a mantra to them from her, even if there is a self-help quality to it. What matter more is that it feels determined, and that is what her fans depend on her to provide—the good news.”
Enter: the story of Jesus.
For those that didn’t spend a million years in Catholic school like I did, the Coles Notes™ version looks like this: the son of God, Jesus shows up on earth via his virgin mother, Mary. He hangs out with her and the fam until he’s about 30 and then gets to work laying the basis of Christianity before he’s betrayed by one of his best friends, crucified at age 33, and rises from the dead. Then, he heads up to reunite with God before promising he’ll return to earth to save us all. The catch? He never says when his return will be, leaving millions of followers to keep their spiritual porch lights on.
Missy doesn’t write or perform music that’s accompanied by a question mark—she means every word, and isn’t on a quest for permission.
And Elliott’s career sort of follows the same narrative. After leaving us with a slew of lyrics to live by, she stepped back 11 years ago and left it to those in her wake to define their own tastes, careers, and lives in her absence. As an already private artist, she didn’t seek to keep the media posted with her personal life or plans for a comeback, and even after returning to the stage at one of the biggest events of the year, she didn’t fill in the blanks while we scrambled to figure out what her re-appearance meant.
Then, she delivered a single that seeks to fuel camaraderie, self-esteem, and the feeling that accompanies most Missy Elliott singles: purpose. And that’s because Missy doesn’t write or perform music that’s accompanied by a question mark—she means every word, and isn’t on a quest for permission. Which is a gift to her listeners in and of itself.
“Unapologetic” tends to be a word we use a lot, especially when in conjunction with a female artist who writes overtly about whatever the fuck they want. But while Elliott has always been unequivocally herself—unequivocally strong, complex, and smart—her latest single invites us to feel the same way. As Ghansah describes, she delivers the “good news,” giving her fans a rallying cry built on the same stream of confidence and badassery she cultivated via “One Minute Man” and “Work It.”
Missy Elliott has never asked us to be like her, she has never bragged about being better. Instead, she leads by example, laying breadcrumbs that we’re welcome to follow or not—it’s completely our choice. Which is why her return is so important. When everything else goes to shit, it helps to have someone to follow or look to when it’s easy to lose our bearings or sense of purpose. It helps to have an artist who has only ever been authentic, particularly when authenticity can be so scary.