The rap star Missy Elliott is nothing if not anomalous.
Singular in style, she generally marches to the beat of her own drum machine. (Or, in the case of Elliott's new album, "The Cookbook," her own drumline: The percussive piece "Bad Man" is built around a rat-a-tat marching-band rhythm.) Let others trade in artistic cliche; the Portsmouth, Va., Grammy winner is too imaginative, too playful, too eccentric to make hackneyed hip-hop.
R&B, however, is a different story altogether -- an allegory about pop hubris, if you will.
While "The Cookbook" affirms Elliott's status as one of the most compelling and creative figures in contemporary rap, the recording also proves her to be a rather pedestrian soul singer. Sadly so.
Elliott may have deluded herself into thinking otherwise, but the sooner she gets over the Aaliyah-channeling thing, the better off we'll all be. Her banal R&B tracks -- of which there are nearly a half-dozen on "The Cookbook" -- spoil an otherwise delightful meal.
It's not unlike a four-star restaurant serving Velveeta-slathered Wonder Bread.
Yet here is Elliott singing about a botched relationship on "Remember When," a conventional R&B track that's most likely to inspire you to remember the good old days, when rappers were rappers and singers were singers and nobody dared to attempt any such artistic cross-dressing.
And here she is prattling on about private parts on "Meltdown," a song so tepid in its execution that it's hard to imagine anything actually melting in its presence.
And so on.
So let's all take a moment to thank the musical gods for CD burners and iPods. Because "The Cookbook's" misfires are nothing a little digital editing can't dispose of -- er, fix.
Befitting an artist who has appeared in one music video with a shaved head and her face spray-painted jet black and in another wearing an inflated garbage bag, Elliott's best rap songs (most notably "Work It") have combined futuristic funk with whimsical lyrics that often border on the absurd. She basically sticks to that recipe on "The Cookbook," though she does tinker some with the ingredients, particularly on the production side.
Where Elliott once worked almost exclusively with Timbaland, the visionary producer from Virginia Beach, she's invited a bevy of knob-twiddlers to assist with the new album. The result is a recording that covers a remarkable amount of stylistic territory, from Jamaica and the Dirty South to Mars: The first single, "Lose Control," sounds as though it was produced by HAL 9000, what with its time-warped space-age soundtrack.
The club-friendly song, which features the R&B diva Ciara and the hollering hypeman Fat Man Scoop, is built around an electro-funk sample that's more than 20 years old, from the appropriately named Cybotron.
That the lyrics ("Hypnotic, robotic, this thing will rock your bodies") will not gain any acclaim for their poetic merits doesn't matter; a large part of Elliott's charm as a rapper is that she's not afraid to come across as a goofball. Indeed, by not taking herself too seriously, she only adds to the irresistibility of her music.
And besides, it's got a funky beat and you can bug out to it.
Even funkier is the Neptunes-produced "On & On," which pits a lurching bass line against a series of synthesized whistles and comes across like a mash-up of early-'80s video game themes. It might have gone down as the most creative hip-hop production feat of the year if not for the album-closing "Bad Man," which features Elliott, the Sri Lankan sensation M.I.A. and emerging dancehall artist Vybz Kartel rhyming over a Decatur, Ga., high school band's drumline.
So frenetic is the song that it manages to make the rest of the album's otherwise busy entries (the J. Geils-sampling "Partytime," the breakdancing-ready "We Run This," the crunkish "Click Clack") sound downright tame.
All that bleeding-edge sonic diversity suggests that Elliott could have titled the album "Idiosynchronicity" -- even if the R&B does sound completely out of sync.