[This is image of Missy Elliot is by Josh A Katz, and is epic btw]
We’ve got a track review for you today. Well, less a review and more of an archeological dig because this song boggles my mind. You’ve probably heard “Work It” by Missy Elliot before, or at the very least you’re aware of the lyrics “I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it.” Well, if you haven’t listened to it recently or deeply, give it a spin, because 1. It’s always the correct time for Missy Elliot and 2. This song is so freaking weird.
Let’s start out with the thing that drove me to make this an article: the sampling. I’m usually the last person on earth to notice samples, but this song’s sampling actually caught my ear because I had heard the song in question not five minutes before. The rhythm track is taken from Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which incidentally is one of my favorite songs ever, and it’s a pretty good if unsubtle pull. Samples I didn’t notice include Run D.M.C.’s corny rhyming dictionary classic, “Peter Piper,” and the opening from obscure beyond old school song “Request Line.” The cumulative effect of this is a sparse but busy instrumental that feels older than the actual song. This song is only from 2002, which is about ten years younger than I had thought.
The production, like in all of Elliot’s work, comes courtesy of Timberland, who absolutely kills it. He brings musical ideas in and out at a speed that rivals Missy’s machine gun approach to lyrical topics. The early 2000s were the peak of Timberland’s powers, and this beat is one of his very best. The pop appeal is there, but the song is still steeped in hip-hop culture, and the sounds are just cutting edge and alternative enough to evoke his work with Beck and Bjork around this time.
But none of this is why “Work It” has so thoroughly lodged itself into my brain. This horrible affliction is all because of Missy Elliot. She is just not normal. I’m tempted to try and litigate all the beautifully psychotic bars on this thing, but we don’t have all week. Highlights include Lil Kim dating a pastor, Missy’s butt going “BUMBOMBIMBOMBUMP,” her strange lyrical riffs on “Puerto Rican Chinese boys,” her even stranger “Roots” references, and the clean version’s brilliant use of elephant noises (don’t ask). But honestly, none of these come close to the way she weaves between lines in forward and reverse playback. If you put the average song in reverse, the lyrics and tone turn into mush, but Missy’s flow is so incredibly tight that it forms more than a few bars that are perfect palindromes, and thus can be reused backward to disorienting effect. This includes the chorus, which is just one impressively long rhythmic loop played backward and forward to create a full stanza.
Alright, having listened to this song probably a dozen times in the past 24 hours, I keep noticing new details. Like how the outro is just hard cuts between downbeats of other sections in the song and the “Heart of Glass” sample being played on triangle and handbells, which should not work but absolutely does. However, if I keep going until we’ve talked over every strange detail it’ll drive us both insane. So, with a heavy heart, I must listen to other songs now. Needless to say, this song holds up to repeat listens, so uh…listen repeatedly I guess?