Look hard at the history of hip-hop, but you won’t find many artists with the charisma or innovation to wear a garbage bag in a video, let alone the ability to do so and then make that record sell even more. In her previous five albums, Missy Elliott has for the most part seemed to push not only the visual but also the aural boundaries of rap (see 2001’s “Get Ur Freak On”). And, backed by producer Timbaland, also noted for his eccentricity, Elliott’s also asserted female sexual desire that deftly flips the masculine boilerplate ribaldry of much rap on its head. The Cookbook, featuring a lineup of established producers and rookies, marks a departure from the conventions of the Timbo-Missy duo, and it emphasizes Elliott’s genre-fucking aesthetics and further proves her versatility.
On the electro-beat-inspired “Lose Control” (this year’s “Work It”), accompanied perfectly by freestyle throwback Ciara, and the “Apache” break-beat-driven “We Run This,” Elliott shows she can control any rhythm into a wall sweatin’ up-tempo classic. She sounds like Beyonce on “Can’t Stop,” another Rich Nice-funked-out wonder, full of his signature samples of blaring, blasting horns and unconventional drum loops. The style might be a little worn out by now, but it’s evident that its forceful energy is parallel to its step-siblings, Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” and Amerie’s “One Thing.” On rap/R&B hybrid “Irresistible Delicious” (featuring Slick Rick), Elliott easily transitions from rapper to crooner. She goes from doing a brilliant Slick Rick impression over his “Lick the Balls” beat to singing the hooks over the sped-up India Arie “Simple” sample in between verses.
Besides the dance tracks we’ve come to expect, Elliott shows various self-portraits and once again expresses her sexual desires. In an industry where male lust is as ubiquitous as blazers at a Kanye West show, her blunt raps about sex appear relevant. The neo-soul-gasmic Scott Storch-produced “Meltdown” — perhaps the hottest track on the album — harnesses the sensual energy of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” while facetiously re-signifying the phallo-centricity of rap music in her search for the right “magic stick”: “I broke up with my ex/ I couldn’t take his sarcasm/ every time we bone, I had to fake an orgasm/ moanin’ and groanin’ try make him feel manly/ I’d rather use my toys/ plus my hands come in handy.” It’s far from man-hating; it’s the type of stuff that makes a man want to step his game up.
She also begins to expose some of her vulnerabilities. Shifting gears on the R&B balladry, she apologizes for her cheating tendencies on “Remember When,” which is reminiscent of Usher’s “Confessions.” On the sinister “My Struggles,” she briefly describes bouts with domestic violence and alcoholism, with hip-hop blueswoman Mary J. Blige fittingly dropping a verse over her own “What’s the 411” sample.
The missteps are few — the staid “Partytime” (offered by Timbo) and the attempt at crunk with “Click Clack” — but even these prove to show Elliott isn’t afraid to take chances. Despite the absence of Timbo, Elliott continues to do what she does best: cross-fertilizing genres, geographies and temporalities and continuing to transform her musical identity without sacrificing any authenticity.