Back in the day

Bruce Springsteen had 9/11 to fuel his examination of life, the universe and everything on The Rising. For Missy Elliott, her motivation hit closer to home.

In the span of a year, Elliott lost two colleagues — Aaliyah to a plane crash, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes to a car accident. Those deaths, plus the lingering murders of TuPac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, spurred Elliott to scrutinize the state of hip-hop today on her new album, Under Construction.

Her conclusion: where the hell did the fun go?

Elliott makes her most impassioned plea on “Back in the Day”. She namedrops Run DMC, Salt ‘N’ Pepa and Slick Rick as epitomizing a time when hip-hop “was so much fun”. Instead of sounding wistfully nostalgic, Elliott and guest Jay-Z reason hip-hop’s fascination with the thug life could have prevented the deaths of TuPac and Biggie.

In Elliott’s view of the hip-hop world, the media is just as much complicite in perpetuating the feeding frenzy for a gangsta image as the hip-hop artists who indulge in it. Missy is realistic, though — she’s not telling her colleagues to time travel to the past. Rather, she’s encouraging them to let in some room for a bit of fun.

And Elliott practices what she preaches.

At the start of Under Construction, Elliott says “hate, anger, gossip and plain old bullshit have become ignorant to me”, and she goes on to skewer gossip mongers playfully but assertively on “Gossip Folks”. (“I hear she eat one cracker a day”.)

When she’s not ruminating on loss, Elliott pursues the modus operandi that’s driven her career — macking on men and putting clueless people in their place.

“Work It”, the third best single of 2002, is a sonic masterpiece.1 Backward lyrics, Blondie samples, Chinese phrases and an elephant roar serving as a euphemism for male genitalia — clever wouldn’t begin to describe it.

Then there’s “Pussycat”, a dirty ditty in which Elliott purrs, “Pussy don’t fail me now/I gotta turn this nigga out/So he don’t want nobody else/But me and only me.”

Afterward, Elliott spends another soliloquy needlessly justifying the song’s intention, stating she wanted to do something “representing for my ladies”. Query: what would a gay man’s version of this song sound like?

On “Nothing Out There For Me”, Elliott teams up with Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child to satire women intoxicated by “their man”. Knowles plays the whipped girlfriend in a phone conversation with Elliott, who plays her conscience.

Throughout, collaborator Timbaland provides Elliott with a sonic backdrop that often threatens to upstage the “star of the show”. Next time Trent Reznor gets writer’s block, he ought to put on “Slide” and “Ain’t That Funny” for inspiration.

From track to track, Timbaland produces some fascinating textures that don’t necessarily add up to a tight whole. After a while, Under Construction feels like it’s patched together. The constant references to Missy Elliott exclusives don’t string anything tighter.

But for all of Elliott’s assertiveness, she doesn’t lose that sense of fun, that old school party atmosphere she’d like to see more of. What’s the point of tearing down the fragile ego of a man if there isn’t an element of play?

Under Construction is nakedly honest, a likeable work fascinating for its laurel leaf aspirations.

1The best single of 2002 is “World’s End Supernova” by Quruli, with “Funky Movin'” by Zoobombs taking second place.