For almost the entire time we’ve been lucky enough to know her, Missy Elliott has had deep laugh lines, like two parentheses containing her smile. They show up generously; you can spot them just a few seconds into the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” I remember, as a kid, thinking they looked like the tribal marks I associated with matriarchs, two rivers coursing down her face.
As Fab 5 Freddy said in 1997, “Let’s face it—a lot of black women look like her.” It’s true! Many testimonies of early Missy fandom point to that reflexive recognition, in part, as the location of her significance. And many were reminded this week of the awe of watching Missy, someone who could feel familiar while seeming so fully unearthly.
After years of ad hoc public campaigning by fans, she was honored with MTV’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, a top honor at the VMAs that comes accompanied by a peer tribute and a medley performance of hits. Since being renamed for Jackson in 1991, the award has gone to U2, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Beyoncé, among others. Hype Williams, the iconoclastic director (and frequent Elliott collaborator) whose fish-eye lens and magpie aesthetic defined ’90s and ’00s music culture, was recognized long ago, taking home the honor in 2006. That Jennifer Lopez received the Video Vanguard Award before Missy is an oversight even Lopez herself might be willing to admit.
Missy’s late recognition comes at a time of renewed public interest in the singer-rapper-producer-songwriter, who was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this summer. This phase kicked off with the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show, where Elliott offered up an electrified mini-set during Katy Perry’s headlining performance. When younger viewers appeared to be confused by Missy’s presence—until her new EP Iconology was surprise-released last week, she hadn’t put out an album since 2005’s The Cookbook—it was clear that she had not been appropriately celebrated. The next morning, the three songs she performed, “Work It,” “Get Ur Freak On,” and “Lose Control,” climbed the iTunes singles chart. She tweeted, delightfully, in response:
Over the past few years, there have been a couple of major, overwhelmingly positive magazine stories that attempted to properly contextualize and reinforce Missy Elliott’s legacy. And, maybe more impactfully, she’s been a warm, gracious presence on Twitter, where she posts messages endearingly punctuated by emojis. It’s not that she disappeared for years at a time: She’s steadily contributed production and features to songs by other artists; advocated for mentees like Ciara and Sharaya J; and released a couple of singles, often sparking rumors of a comeback album that has yet to materialize. She’s been here all along, growing alongside the culture that she has influenced for decades. In that, she models a rare possibility of celebrity—private, but not hermetic; engaged, but not thirsty; kind, gregarious, encouraging of young talent, but not condescending. She minds her own business.
In an era characterized by celebrity worship on one side and celebrity “canceling” on the other, Missy’s persona only amplifies her work, which is expansive, challenging, and inordinately fun. In 1997, as hip-hop was becoming a billion-dollar industry staked on authenticity, Missy exploded the concept of character. Growing up in Virginia, removed from the centers of rap and pop, gave her the freedom to do what made sense to her. She regularly juxtaposed the naturalism in her lyrics with the fantastical brick-by-brick world-building of her videos, which articulated mad-cap, space- and anime-inspired visions of not only the future, but of alternate dimensions. She often did the same within her songs, eschewing dense wordplay in favor of booming soundscapes that, for example, grounded a droning synth with the warm sound of a tabla.
We needed the space and time to catch up to her, to properly clock what we were seeing and hearing. “We give our music a futuristic feel. I don’t make music or videos for 1997—I do it for the year 2000,” she said at the time. In truth, that was overly modest. The new millennium she anticipated never quite came to bear; her music from that era still sounds forward-thinking and her videos still look as if they were filmed in a forgiving galaxy we haven’t yet discovered.
The performance at the VMAs recreated those surreal landscapes by remarkably adapting some of her most memorable videos for the stage. After opening with her new single “Throw It Back,” Missy loomed over the audience in a version of the inflated black leather jumpsuit made infamous in the video for “The Rain,” reinterpreted the choreography that helped make “Work It” a phenomenon, and brought back the farmer-chic, crop-circle motif featured in the clip for “Pass That Dutch.”
When Missy accepted the award, she did so holding a white sheet of paper on which she’d written the names of all the people she wanted to thank: Peter Gabriel, her glam squad, the Elektra executives who first signed her way back when. She ended the speech by dedicating the award to the global dance community, dozens, if not hundreds, of whose members have participated over the years in the precise, elaborate choreography that has long been one of her signatures. “Y’all are not just props. Y’all are the icing on the cake, the beat to the heart,” she said, in a moment so simultaneously sweet, humble, and encouraging that I sobbed and sobbed before closing the tab. Even as she was receiving long-overdue props, Missy wanted to share her moment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Michael Jackson won the Video Vanguard Award in 1991; that was the year the award was renamed in his honor.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork