Top 10 of the decade - tenth entry
Missy ‘Misdemeanour' Elliot – Get Ur Freak On (2001)
(series now complete here, with further reading here and final notes here)
I’d always intended at least one selection to be from hip-hop or r&b, to give some reflection to those genres’ absolute dominance of popular music at the turn of the decade and years after. At my socially conservative centre you wouldn’t go out looking for an r&b night as their ubiquity ensured you didn’t need to - crappy bars, pubs and clubs everywhere had the sound and it could unite boys and girls, drinkers and sharkers, in a spectacular pre-Carnage abandon. This was populist and modern sexed up party music broken free from social niche or generic restriction. Classics came round with startling frequency, Destiny’s Child one week, Kelis the next, even upstarts like Amerie could be ensured a big moment if they secured the services of the producer du jour. On the clubbing fringes too house DJ friends would marvel at the production on Dre’s 2001 and all the press wowed over Timbaland’s productions. They had won the battle and now it was all about how long the spectacle could be maintained.
I’d had a soft spot for 90s r&b as an emergent pop sound that was not some kind of po-mo, Britpop option; tunes like SWV’s I’m So Into You was a biggie in our Leeds student houses, TLC’s Waterfall then later gear such as Blackstreet’s No Diggity. All of these sat well with the occasional purchases of ‘real’, manlier hip-hop. Later I again had my partner to thank for bringing me closer to an array of Elliot and Timbaland productions from the previous decade when Warners/WEA were getting behind r&b, including her own She’s A Bitch, the Rain, tunes for Nicole and others and those Aaliyah classics. Then Get Ur Freak On emerged from Missy Elliot’s third album and was her biggest UK single, both in sales and impact.
Getting a big r&b smash by the early noughties was all about global reach and an exchange of musical motifs. This was a time of Punjabi MC’s Mundian To Bach Ke’s reaching out to the US with the Nightrider riff to embolden the bhangra sound. Missy and Timbaland as producers wanted a sound that would go beyond just the UK or American ‘urban’ crowds. Mumbai would be getting down, Tokyo and other Asia-Pacific hubs too. Missy was aware of this global reach and Get Ur Freak On explicitly recognised the allure of the last American pop phenomenon, with a simplistic but very effective Punjabi melody (played on the ektara) and snatched lyrics in Hindi and Japanese.
Of course artists had seen and would go on to see the orientalist/exotic bandwagon waving at them to jump on, the likes of Truth Hurts and Nore’s Nothing ripping Middle East and Indian elements but wrapping them firmly back in the low-end bump and grind of standard r&b or hip-hop. But crucially, Miss E and Timbaland went one further by making the ektara riff stand way out in the mix, getting into your head with its bell-like clarity. The rhythm is double-layered, the r&b thumps away as expected in the foreground (quite hard by Timbaland standards) but Indian percussion skirts around underneath to add a different funk, allowing you to express yourself more than if there was just the conventional jerk and judder to the main beat. At its heart is a manic urgency to convey the lyrics and incidental content, not consistent in approach with r&b crazysexycool but effective on those terms in result.
R&B eventually did get far too samey and too reliant on hot chicks with butts to sell music, something Missy Elliot was always adept at subverting in her peak, unfortunately leaving its main progeny to be parasite humpers like the Black-Eyed Peas. Gangsta rap too became stupid parody with Fifty Cent and Jay-Z and below then Ja Rule and DMX battling for realness as album sales finally turned down. The best stuff for the last few years such as Rihanna and Kanye has been more than a little influenced by digitised dance music, while the poppiest gear is not really r&b at all but slick disco in the mould of Estelle’s American Boy or Shakira’s latest. But Get Ur Freak On achieved the dual status of being one of the standout r&b tunes of the time while standing apart from the genre.