Driven by sizzling singles and innovative videos, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's 1997 "Supa Dupa Fly" album elevated her from hot writer-producer to pop phenomenon, a particularly impressive achievement in the male-dominated culture of hip-hop and R&B. Having crafted chart-topping hits for a half-dozen R&B acts, Elliott was able to parlay perceived sales potential into creative control with her own imprint, the Gold Mind. Her album, the imprint's first release, went double platinum.
Working as always with longtime beat partner and co-producer Tim "Timbaland" Mosley, Elliott eschews the lighter shadings of "Supa Dupa Fly" on her sophomore album, "Da Real World" (Gold Mind/East West). This "World" is built on harder (though still skittish) beats, taut bass lines and sharply etched string arpeggios. The dynamic duo has chosen not to repeat the sound of its debut, taking time out on the caustic "Beat Biters" to snap at all the rappers and producers who have co-opted their sound.
The album is a more somber affair in general, focusing on unresolved, and seemingly unresolvable, tensions between women and men. In Missy's world, the latter have their uses ("Hot Boyz"), but it's best to have your guard up and possibly a lawyer on retainer. In "We Did It," she complains about a cad who beds her and then disappears, never to be heard from again. A more personal betrayal marks "You Don't Know," a duet with Lil' Mo that sounds like an X-rated version of the cat fight Brandy and Monica engaged in on "The Boy Is Mine." And Missy enlists Aaliyah and Da Brat on the vengeful "Stickin' Chickens," where the final demand seems one sided ("I want it all, from the [expletive] house down to the dog").
When it comes to materialism, Elliott decries males as coldhearted gold diggers one moment, mimics that approach the next. In "All N My Grill," she warns, "If you want me, where my dough?/ Give me money, buy me clothes." And in the generally upbeat "Hot Boyz," Elliott is even more blatant: "See, y'all be drivin' Jaguars and the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces/ Playin' hard ball with the platinum Visa/ I'ma dig in your pockets, dig in your wallets, money I'm foundin', yeah you got my heart poundin'."
One controversial aspect of the new album is its incessant spotlighting of the word "bitch," particularly on the first single, "She's a Bitch." In interviews, Elliott insists she's simply reclaiming the word in the same way male rappers reclaimed "nigga"--that a bitch is simply a strong female who knows what she wants. But the song is weak, and having Lil' Kim contribute a pair of raw interludes dressing this theme--"If you can't wear the name/ Don't try to use it," Kim snarls on "Throw Your Hands Up"--does nothing for her case.
The album's other guests make no great impression, either: Lady Saw's all right on the dance-hall-driven "Mr. DJ," but Redman coasts on the mutually rude duet "Dangerous Mouths," Juvenile slouches through "U Can't Resist," and manic white boy Eminem is woefully miscast on the stupidly violent "Busa Rhyme," exactly the kind of commercial collaboration that Elliott's stature should preclude.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)
CAPTION: Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, tackling tensions between women and men.