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Fine dining
Missy Elliott cooks up a new dish
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Hand it to Missy Elliott: for the past few years, she’s given her albums appropriate titles. Miss E . . . So Addictive (Elektra, 2001) was exactly that. A freaky mix of filthy rhymes, spasmic grooves, and classic Misdemeanor attitude, it remains her finest full-length. Under Construction (Elektra, 2002), with its loose old-school grooves, sounded like a work in progress. Elliott’s heart was in the right place as she shouted out to departed comrades Biggie and Aaliyah, but her didactic monologues bemoaning the downfall of carefree hip-hop killed the party. Less than a year later, This Is Not a Test (Elektra, 2003) came out and bombed.

In the two full years since, she’s reinvented herself. On the cover of The Cookbook (Goldmind/Altantic), a svelte, lip-glossed Missy stands poised to croon in a black-and-white mock-up of a smoky ’40s jazz club. It’s a total 180 from the rotund floating head we saw amid spiky spheres on So Addictive.

This may be a leaner Missy, but she’s still a mean rapper. There are fewer gimmick tracks, and she’s tightened up her rhyme game. And though she’s proved herself a talented producer, this time she takes a step back from the board. More important, only two songs here are produced by Timbaland, her long-time collaborator and inadvertent shadow caster. (Don’t think she doesn’t know — his tracks open the album, and in the menu-themed credits they’re listed as "appetizers.") Much of the rest is handled by relative unknowns; a few shine with original sounds, but it’s the veterans who steal the show. Fresh off the Amerie hit "1 Thing," Rich Harrison provides another massive break-based beat to back Missy’s braggadocio on "Can’t Stop." Pharrell Williams continues his descent into darker Neptunes depths with the squiggle-and-thump of "On & On" — think Wile E. Coyote slipping across a linoleum floor.

The same creepy vibe pervades a number of tracks on what is otherwise a playful album. Featuring former American Idol Fantasia Borino, "4 My Man" comes on like a soulful love song until midway through, when a terrifying piano plink replaces the warm strings and Missy’s pillow talk gives way to the confession that she’s "happy with the trigger." Even this makes sense in context: Missy’s dead serious about her man, and The Cookbook offers recipes for love and not just sex. That’s not to say she’s ready to join a convent, but at 34, she’s learning about balance. "Mommy," an ode to all the ladies who rock baggy sweatsuits and drive big SUVs but still like to get their freak on, sounds like the start of an MILF (the now near-ubiquitous shorthand for "Mom I’d like to fuck," from American Pie) rap revolution.

A few befuddling elements have sneaked in. Elliott has developed a penchant for having her vocals sloppily scratched into odd nooks and crannies. She’s also contracted Game-itis, an affliction that leads to needless namedropping. Sisqo, Beyoncé, and Jigga are just three who litter The Cookbook.

Construction’s old-school vibe is here too, but in smaller, more digestible chunks. And instead of chatting about it, Missy brings the party back with tracks that feature hip-hop legends like Slick Rick and Grand Puba. Not that she can’t still play talent scout: The Cookbook brings ingénues M.I.A. and Vybz Kartel on board for the roaring closer, "Bad Man." With its minimal but broad beat, "Bad Man" is a fitting outro — it’s the sound of pots and pans clanging as Missy closes up the kitchen.

Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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