To drop all pretense of critical objectivity for a moment, it’s probably safe to assume that a fair number of fellow Missy Elliott fans will also have goofy grins on their faces when they first hear the trademark sass and bounce of “Throw It Back,” the opening track on her excellent but tantalizingly brief new EP “Iconology.” After all, it’s been almost 15 years since Elliott released her last album, and until this long-promised-but-surprise-dropped EP arrived last night, all we’d gotten in the long interim was a handful of stand-alone songs (two of which, “WTF” and “I’m Better,” are absolutely great and came with trademark eye-popping videos) and some memorable guest features, including “Tempo” from Lizzo’s breakthrough “Because I Love You” and a cameo appearance alongside Katy Perry at the 2015 Super Bowl.
It’s been a ludicrously long wait for something substantial from this deeply influential and multi-talented artist, and although the four new songs on “Iconology” feel more like a hearty appetizer than a full meal, they also find Elliott covering more stylistic ground in 12 minutes than most artists can in exponentially longer time. (As a bonus, this five-track EP tacks on an a cappella remix of its last track, “Why I Still Love You”). The songs — two of which find her reunited with longtime collaborator Timbaland — are stylistically diverse but also unmistakably her, with trademark vocal and sonic flourishes alongside deep and memorable hooks and elastic but hard-hitting beats. And although the passage of time has inevitably made her sound evoke feelings of nostalgia, these songs are also completely now.
From the top, “Throw It Back” — which comes with another dazzling video — sets the scene with a woozy mid-tempo groove and Elliott’s trademark funny lyrical asides, including a quote from her 2001 smash “Work It” and references to her old protégé rapper Tweet (“I did records for Tweet before y’all could even tweet”) and even the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award she’ll receive at the MTV VMAs on Monday night (“I got so many VMAs I could live on the moon”). “Cool Off” nearly doubles the tempo with a fast, spare beat (“Goin’ hard,” she raps, referencing Jay-Z “4:44” album, “tempo forty-four, feel like Jay-Z”) that actually recalls her Virginia homeboys the Neptunes, although production on the first two songs comes from the relatively little-known Wili Hendrix.
Next up are the Timbaland collaborations: “Drip Demeanor” is a slow jam that features a guest vocal from “Sum 1” (who sounds more than a little like Alessia Cara) and some classic unsubtle Elliott lyrics: “I open up my candy shop, my panties drop/ You see what I got/ The strawberries and berries, them chocolates nice/ All in the box.” Finally, “Why I Still Love You” is practically a doo-wop song, with a slow tempo and a vocal arrangement that’s sophisticated enough to warrant the a cappella version tacked onto the end of the EP — although TBH we’d rather have had another new song.
And that’s it — but who’s complaining? It’s a testament to Elliott’s influence on today’s sounds that “Iconology” sounds fully contemporary — there are moments that might recall Nicki Minaj or even Tierra Whack, but that’s probably more a reflection of the Missdemeanor in their genes — and places her back at the center of musical culture, where she belongs. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for the follow-up …