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On its 20th anniversary, US rap critic Kathy Iandoli honours Missy Elliott’s debut album by exploring how it changed the game by shifting the direction for women in rap

Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly
The Goldmine / Elektra
Original Release Date: 15 July 1997

Missy Elliott’s debut solo album arrived in the Summer of 97; arguably a weird time for anyone who loved hip-hop. Biggie passed in March of that year, following Tupac in September of 1996. After that, everyone retreated to their respective corners in the bi-coastal rap war, trying to regroup and essentially stay alive, as the death toll of two kings loomed overhead. In New York, artists like Bootcamp Clik, Wu-Tang Clan, Capone-N-Noreaga, and KRS-One all released projects, perhaps hoping to fill the gaping wound left following their loss.

Meanwhile, the rest of the rap map saw other regions peeking their heads back out. Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista came through for the Midwest, B.G. and Mia X for the South. Lady of Rage was the lone West Coaster. However, once Puffy put his shiny suit on, hip-hop was forever changed. His debut album No Way Out propelled the unbridled commercialisation of rap, as Puff took Biggie b-roll, layered it with catchy samples, and repackaged it for the mainstream. This happened on 1 July, and for any hip-hop bleeding heart, it was tough to appreciate the gist of the new direction at face value. On 15 July, Virginia artist Missy Elliott’s released Supa Dupa Fly, which was bookended by No Way Out (where Missy holds an uncredited vocal arrangement on All About The Benjamins) and Company Flow’s pride of the underground, Funcrusher Plus, on 22 July.

Missy was inadvertently speaking to the new direction of hip-hop when she released the Hype Williams-directed visuals for the project’s lead single The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) that June. The video showcased exaggerated facial gestures and scenery, fisheye lens shots, and Missy’s now infamous inflated garbage bag ensemble.

The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) marked Missy as the immediate figurehead for the eccentric – a gift and a curse for a veteran singer, songwriter, rapper and producer. When The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) first poured into the music scene, Missy had much to say about reinvigorating hip-hop with a fresh wave of originality. “The radio is stuck right now,” she told MTV News back in 97. “Everything sounds the same; as far as video-wise, everything looks the same. So we feel like we comin’ in and we gonna change the whole thing.” Missy was greater than her marketing campaign, but swimming in a pool of Lauryn Hills, plus Lil’ Kims and Foxy Browns, forced the woman once called “Misdemeanor” to make her presence uniquely felt.

In 97 we were still living in an era where a female rap artist had to be tethered to her male counterpart. Kim had Biggie, Foxy had Jay-Z. Lauryn would break that spell the following year, but at that point she still had Wyclef. And Missy had Timbaland. Being flanked by a man was called a “cosign” back then, yet in retrospect it was really just complimenting the chef on his cuisine. Woven throughout the entirety of Supa Dupa Fly are these nods back to Timbaland. The video for The Rain has shots of Tim dancing, while Missy chants “It be me me me and Timothy” as Timbaland replies “me me me” amidst his other ad-libs throughout the song. All the pleasantries to her creative partner aside, and the song is about making a mad dash once trouble strikes in a relationship, aka “the rain.” The last lines of the song sum it up: “Chumpy, I break up with him before he dump me/ To have me, yes you lucky.

Pass Da Blunt opens with Missy calling out anyone bootlegging Timbaland’s style. “Your worst mistake is to try duplicate anything that Timbaland make,” she says. While the song is about Missy chin-checking the haters (both men and women) who both gravitate toward and are repulsed by her success, the message is drowned out by the hook – where Missy interpolates Musical Youth’s sole hit Pass The Dutchie to once again big up Timbaland (“He got the beats that make me jump, jump, jump”).

The moments where Missy shines the brightest are when Timbaland is seemingly muted. Songs like Hit ‘Em Wit’ Da Hee (with Lil’ Kim) and Sock It 2 Me (with Da Brat) define the union of rap ladies, a rarity following the Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown war of pitting women against each other. Best Friends, featuring Aaliyah, highlights Missy’s own vocal prowess once lined up next to Baby Girl’s. Friendly Skies with Ginuwine does the same. Missy defied gender barriers at every given turn – volleying between breaking hearts and being the brokenhearted – often adopting the role of what was seemingly “the man’s place in a relationship” back then. And while Timbaland’s brilliant soundscape of spacey production ultimately enhanced Missy’s message, his presence often eclipsed hers on her own debut album.

In a nutshell, Supa Dupa Fly is full of irony. The project holds a very tight theme of duality, with Missy grappling with either wanting a commitment or a booty call. Repelling her haters or luring them in, all while being laced with blunt smoke amidst moments of both smooth singing and choppy spoken word. Timbaland produced the entire album and co-wrote on most of the songs, yet the pedestal he’s placed upon for the duration of the project would suggest Missy had no career before him.

But once you strip away the endless gratitude toward Timbaland’s genius, the real gem is Missy Elliott – an artist with a track record of hits for other artists, now successfully paving her own way. Supa Dupa Fly arrived at a time when we needed it the most, as it shifted the direction of women in rap while adding some light to a dismal era and putting Virginia rap on the map. Perhaps we were too blinded by “The Rain” to realise it.