Missy, We Owed You a Better Future

Missy, We Owed You a Better Future

On rhythm, astronauts, and rain

Illustration: Trevor Fraley

Missy, I am sorry that we are all not cloaked in wild, bloated trash bags bouncing down the boulevard to some high hats kicking against a rattling car window. Missy, I am sorry that finger waves went out of style too quickly for our people to truly savor them, but I will say that before they did, in the dying notes of one late-’90s summer, I did kiss a girl underneath the Bishop Hartley High School bleachers and her finger waves were on point, and the sun shone on them and I felt briefly sanctified, or at least I knew the age-old answer to the question Marvin begged about being sanctified. And I don’t know how much that girl watched your videos, Missy, but I will have to assume it was at least as much as I watched them, and so, for the sake of this memory, let us say a lot. And so I have loved those who loved you, Missy.

In 1997, the critics called it a persona because they couldn’t see the world like you saw it, and perhaps I couldn’t, either. I saw Timbaland say you can’t develop chemistry, and I think about how much of Supa Dupa Fly is about the birth of something that didn’t exist before it and never existed like it again. You can’t develop a lot of things, Missy. Rhythm, for example, is first born out of a place, and then chooses its body. You know this already, but some don’t. I was born with just enough rhythm, but still not enough. Virginia is one of those places where rhythm goes to live, and I felt it in 1997, and I still feel it now. You were just two kids from Virginia who wanted to make some noise, and I get that, too. We’re all kids from somewhere, and the kids from the somewhere I come from banged on lunch tables with our closed fists and rattled cartons of milk until the teachers made us stop. The kids from the somewhere I come from try to find a beat in everything, because the rhythm didn’t always come to us when called, so we had to make it out of nothing. “Hit ’Em with Da Hee” is the first proper song on Supa Dupa Fly, and the video is some Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal” shit, except for me and all of my friends who couldn’t dance as well as Michael and couldn’t dance as well as you but could at least make our attempts look good. And, Missy, no one ever talks about this single, I guess because the others were so massive, but it’s the one I loved most because you wore a three-piece suit and looked better in it than all the men who flanked your sides, and that was beautiful. And at the end, Timbaland dropped out all the instruments except for swelling strings, and then those signature Timbaland drums kicked back in and you spit a classic Missy verse: brief, bold, linguistically playful. And that was beautiful. And I still don’t know what it is to hit someone with the hee, but I believed you knew what it meant, and that’s all I needed.

Missy, they made a movie about the black women who helped send astronauts to space, but they didn’t make a movie about the black women who have been to space. There is no film about the black women who touched that edge of possibility. Mae Jemison was there first, and in the picture of her aboard the Spacelab Japan Science Module, she is smiling wide while floating impossibly in the air. If we must have statues, Missy, that is the one I want hovering about some state capital where there are people not yet free but trying.

When I say there is no movie about the black women who have been to space, I am also talking about the black women who imagined space as something they were always inside. How was it to leave Earth, Missy? I know the “Sock It to Me” video looks dated now — overcolored and intentional in its comic animations. But in the moment, surely that was you opening up a window to a new world better than this one. I value now the way sex was an always-hovering character in the song, but made secondary by a battle with aliens, a fight for survival on a planet that does not feel like your planet. Which is also a metaphor for intimacy, depending on the moment one might find themselves inside.

Missy, I want to know what ancestors delivered your sound to you, perhaps in a dream in the early ’90s in some bed in Virginia. It is a shame that only now I can look back and hear what black pop music was destined to become. There you were, walking the tender edge of romance and pain and ferocity. You took the shape of whatever you wanted and didn’t apologize for that, and I regret that I was too young in the moment to accept anything but what I perceived to be a delightful weirdness. I want to say that this was also a blessing, being a weird dark-skinned kid myself. But you were so much more than just an anomaly. You were, it appears, a vehicle for a better time.

The future is here, and you might have seen that it is not so bright. The future is here, and I wake up and watch the news and wonder some mornings if my getting out of bed will somehow make a corner of the world worse, and there are days when it certainly does. I don’t believe this is the future you imagined for us, Missy. Supa Dupa Fly sounded like 10 whole decades of an experience distilled down to 30 minutes of staccato rhymes laid over funk grooves. Supa Dupa Fly is a monument, a prophecy fulfilled only in sound. I imagine you wanting a better world as I do, Missy. But we’re really in it now. It has been 20 years, and everyone still wants to be you. I was at a party in a basement last month, and the DJ played “Beep Me 911,” and everyone cleared out of their seats and ran to the dance floor like the song just came out, because it could have. Even with a reference to a dated mode of communication sitting right there in the title, I would believe in any moment that the song came out this year. In 1997, I was barely a teenager who couldn’t see past the next month, let alone the next year or the next 20. And still. Here we are, talking about the past again as a brief window out of the future. I think you might have no use for nostalgia, Missy. That which is old is old, and even older when you’ve changed the game more times than one could count. But grant me this small mercy, a field of memories to escape from a present that is not like the one your sounds imagined it to be.

I don’t know what it is that is stopping you from coming back, but when your new song came out in 2015, I watched the internet fold in on itself with joy. It must be nice to know that you are still needed. And there you were, just like always, dancing in something glistening and then something black and then something bright. In that moment, you were back for good. And then there was very little. But I get it, Missy. I don’t know what it is like to build a world and then watch everyone else move into it. The new songs have been good. Earlier last week, I heard “I’m Better” playing out of someone’s car, even though it came out in January. It was the remix, the one where you pulled Eve, Lil’ Kim, and Trina along for the ride and made us reminisce all over again. Maybe we’re all just trying to get that old feeling back.

Missy, like you, I too cannot stand the rain. It lashes against my car windshield during summer in Ohio. The storms here in summer are brief, torrential, and violent. I don’t know if you have ever been to Ohio, or if you have ever had to duck underneath an awning when an unexpected cloud swallowed the sun, or if you have ever — in your brief shelter — made up a song to make the waiting go by more smoothly. In July, I would leave for the grocery store with the sun out, and by the time I got there, the rain would be unbearable, causing me to sit in my car for several minutes to wait out the pounding of it. I have gotten used to this ritual over the years and have even found romance in it. I know you know this, Missy. But what I love about the story behind the song you sampled for “Supa Dupa Fly (I Can’t Stand the Rain)” is that Ann Peebles made a song called “I Can’t Stand the Rain” as a reaction against recent R&B hits romanticizing the weather. The Dramatics had “In the Rain,” and Love Unlimited had “Walkin’ in the Rain with the One I Love,” and in Memphis in 1973, Ann Peebles didn’t bring an umbrella to dinner before a concert and the heavens opened up unexpectedly, as heavens are sometimes known to do, and Ann Peebles decided that the rain was actually terrible after all. Sometimes all the rain turns out to be is something that gets you wet. And I get that your song was maybe not about the particular phenomenon of sudden water falling from the sky, but I think of you still when it happens and I am in a running car. And I think of you when I finally give in and walk outside, sacrificing my shoes and clothes to an the unmerciful heavens. And I thought of you especially when, during one particularly violent episode of rain, I parked in a suburban neighborhood to wait out the downpour — the kind of neighborhood where I could never live and would rarely be invited. And as lightning struck in the distance, a harsh breeze pushed along the street, knocking over the freshly placed-out trash and recycling bins. And, Missy, for a moment, there was a black bag floating in the air. Made briefly plump by the rain and the wind that carried the rain to us.