Missy Elliott is an enigma. With each ensuing year she simultaneously encompasses the very essence of the mainstream, while constantly avoiding the artistic pitfalls of its conventions. Her singles aren't singles, as much as cut and paste mini-epics of partner-in-crime, producer extraordinaire, Timbaland's heterogeneous stutter funk beats. Furthermore, her skills as an MC seem to find far more common ground with the impassioned adlibbing of Jamaican toasters than with the witty gun-toting bravado of a Jay-Z. In fact, Missy Elliott has continually found inspiration in her brand of over-the-top modesty, a revelation in the exceedingly competitive patriarchy of hip-hop. Instead of trying to conform her natural huskier frame to that of the legions of disposable waif-like pop starlets, Missy has taken control of her own sexual authority. Her sex is not a commodity to be sold; at least, unless she is doing the selling. Who else but Missy could turn a lewd lecture in sexual competency into a unrestrained female empowerment anthem whose mantra proclaims, "take it off, show me what you got, cause I don't want no one minute man!" It is in this context, that Missy's fifth album This Is Not a Test! comes to resolve exactly none of these paradoxes, and whose unabashedly darker tones only seem to exaggerate the spectacular baffling cult of Missy Elliott.
The first irony of This Is Not a Test! is its very classification as an album. The album as a popular form has fallen on some hard times recently with digital downloading becoming more and more prevalent and studio production costs reaching all time highs. With This Is Not a Test! Missy has only made its future more bleak. In other words, This Is Not a Test! (much like it's predecessor 2002's Under Construction), despite being classified as an album can be better understood as a collection of singles comprising a mix-tape. Missing from the record are any hints of trademark "album" qualities like repeated imagery and reoccurring motifs. Instead, the sonic landscape of This Is Not a Test! is populated by roughly 16 tracks of unadulterated guest-filled (Jay-Z, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige to name a few), remix-friendly, woofer rattling, and tweaker popping exuberance.
The opening one-two punch of "Pass That Dutch", and "Wake Up", serve only to further solidify Missy Elliott and producer Timbaland as the best duo since peanut butter and jelly. The record's first single, "Pass That Dutch", marries the stark monotone throb of a single pouncing bass note, against a frenetic cloud of lively diwali-influenced handclaps; while incessant armies of bells and whistles serve as the perfect vibrant counterbalance to Missy's witty clubisms and primal hollering. "Wake Up" is even more inspired. Over Timbaland's angular boom-bap percussion riveting droplets of sub-aquatic melody drizzle down while Missy delivers a revelatory sermon in "keeping it real". On the track's hook she confides, "If you don't got a gun, it's alright / If you gotta keep your clothes on, it's alright / If your wheels don't spin, it's alright / If you gotta wear them jeans again, it's alright." With so much of hip-hop being polluted with thug posturing and empty declarations of "realness", Missy deserves a medal for her sincerity. To only drive her point home, she invites self-proclaimed hustler Jay-Z to kick a verse on the song; despite delivering a line as inspired as "Evisu jeans cover the rectum, I kick game just like David Beckham," Jay manages to come off rather shallow and irrelevant in the shadow of Missy's frank anti-ballerisms.
However, Jay-Z is not the only guest to falter in the company of Queen Elliott's majesty. "Pump It Up", is This Is Not a Test! ' s greatest moment, minus Nelly's amusing declarations of manly sexual prowess (sample lyric: "Me, I got the magic dick, I'm like go, go, gadget dick"). What makes Nelly's boasts really out of place though, is the fact that Missy uses "Pump It Up", not as a conceited opportunity for gloating, but rather as a self-empowerment anthem for overweight women. In the face of the media's love affair with petite females Elliott feverishly declares, "Love my gut, so fuck a tummy-tuck! / Shake my gut like, 'yeah, bitch! What!?'" Missy's impassioned and revelatory exclamations are almost inspired enough to make you forget that "Pump It Up" rides on one of Timbaland's best instrumentals to date; a trebling electric bass note repeatedly crackles, while staccato handclaps, and cowbells cut through the minimalist distorted frenzy. It's a juicy electro-funk grind-core eargasm that fittingly for Missy is a club banger too.
One of the most surprising aspects of This Is Not a Test! is the fact that many of Timbaland's stark minimalist instrumentals sound so groundbreakingly futuristic, that when the record takes any conventional tones the results often come off as exceedingly dull. The bling-friendly Fabolous duet "Is This Our Last Time", is built upon an annoyingly innocent synth melody, and laconic percussion line, which seems about as original as any of Fabolous' other lackluster material. Furthermore, a song like the ode to vibrators, "Toyz", rides by on a nostalgia-laden disco break that's unfortunately far less amusing than the track's inspired lascivious lyrical concept.
With This Is Not a Test! Missy Elliott and Timbaland have cooked up one of the hottest records of 2003; a perfectly executed, if slightly inconsistent, postmodern slice of crunk that will challenge the sonic architecture of the mainstream, while simultaneously serving to define it -- I can hear the remixes on their way already. HOLLA!