A common entertainment biz nicety is to say that an award is long overdue when artists win a prize that’s long eluded them. It’s one that’s been thrown around frequently when MTV announced that Missy Elliott is this year’s Video Vanguard Award recipient. But in this case, the words are at least very close to being objectively true: There is no rapper in the 21st century whose music videos are as inextricable from their pop culture prestige as Misdemeanor.
The fact that Missy Elliott is an exasperated and with at least two exclamation marks finally about to get this award isn’t an honor that’s gotten sudden attention with its announcement. It’s become a yearly social media ritual to wonder just when is it going to be her year. Her warm reception during her surprise appearance at the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show proved she was still loved even without releasing an album in over a decade. If she never drops another project, fans will be wearing that black inflatable outfit for Halloween until hip-hop dies.
Missy Elliott humbly tweeted her thanks, but a trip through her videography suggests she would’ve been right to feel indignation. To commemorate her achievement, Billboard ranked all 20 of Missy Elliott’s contributions to cinema. Take the journey below.
20. "Ching-a-Ling/Shake Your Pom Pom” (dir. Dave Meyers, 2008)
Missy Elliott’s endless creative stream became spurts as the decade came to a close. That was visually apparent in what would become her last video starring her in seven years. Missy used to have very few issues with fitting an intense amount of content into a short video, but where she was once fluid, very little in “Ching-a-Ling/Shake Your Pom Pom” coheres. Pop locking Japanese hip-hop dance crew U-Min and that brilliantly shot Adidas shoe sequence are highlights, but they never elevate to anything more than a collage over the video’s run. Even Missy’s signature song switch stumbles: The house party set to “Shake Your Pom Pom” comes abrupt and, most shockingly, feels uninspired.
19. "Teary Eyed” (Antti J, Missy Elliott, 2005)
Missy Elliott’s scorned lover number got a video that pulls back from the shock of “Lose Control.” “Teary Eyed” isn’t that chill, though: Missy murders a man and gets thrown in an insane asylum. But while most of Missy Elliott’s videos are the products of stylists, Antti Jokinen mainly plays the thrills (like her ex’s car crashing thanks to a slashed tire) straight. The video does rank in the lower tier of Missy’s catalog like the song, which failed to chart and in many ways marked the end of her hot streak.
18. "All N My Grill" feat. Nicole Wray & Big Boi (Hype Williams, 1999)
“All N My Grill” sticks out from Missy Elliott’s early videos because, well, dancing in the streets is basic by her standards, isn’t it? It’s almost as if her team blew the budget on “She’s a Bitch,” abandoning high concepts for R&B video conventions. You get the chiseled-man-shirtless-in-the-rain scenes along with the singer (Nicole Wray in this case) performing her part at a camera positioned overhead for some reason. Big Boi strolls in at the end apropos of nothing other than the fact that the credits say he’s featured on the song. An opening run of near-unanimously beloved videos was bound to have a forgettable flick at some point, and “All N My Grill” ended up with that distinction.
17. "I'm Better" (feat. Lamb) (Dave Meyers, 2017)
Missy Elliott’s latest leaned into modern rap’s love of triplets with minimalistic production. The video was the opposite, featuring singular Missy looks and effervescent set design. Like “WTF (Where They From)” before it, “I’m Better” leans back from the prior work’s frenetic pacing to focus on stylistics. The results show an artist still confident two decades into her career, because very few can pull that black-and-red empress look off.
16. "Hot Boyz" (feat. Nas, Eve & Lil Mo) (Hype Williams, 1999)
Does Nas actually ride motorcycles? There’s so much of a sensory overload in the “Hot Boyz” video to ask that question, so you’re listening to Nas rap his aggressively censored from a yellow bike amidst smoke. The sight represents the gist of the whole spectacle, which trades provocative imagery for flash (literally — light does not stop flaring as Missy raps in front of walls of fanatics). It’s a pat ending to the leaner Da Real World era. Hopefully the sweater Timbaland wears here has been burnt and dispatched.
15. "WTF (Where They From)" feat. Pharrell Williams (Dave Meyers, 2015)
After a couple of false starts, the Pharrell-produced “WTF (Where They From)” brought back a Missy that sounded like she had a sense of purpose. Dave Meyers, who hadn’t found another culture shifting muse in Missy’s absence, brought that sense of energy to his direction. “WTF (Where They From)” doesn’t chase after Miss E…’s adventurousness, and instead goes for something leaner, focusing on tighter perspective shots to give an intimacy to the choreography. Before the festivities, Meyers voyeuristically peeks around Los Angeles where “WTF” is bumping, as if to imagine a world were Missy was still hot. The dream was actualized for a brief time: Missy’s comeback single was her highest-charting since “Lose Control.”
14. "I'm Really Hot" (Bryan Barber, 2004)
After six consecutive videos with Dave Meyers, Missy Elliott changed directions for her only collaboration with Bryan Barber. “I’m Really Hot” expands on the love of Japanese culture from the Meyers videos and makes it the main crux. Missy has beef with a Japanese crew, so they dance through it. “I’m Really Hot” works more as a time capsule than most Missy videos from the '00s, with its loose-fitting blazer/jeans attire. And krumping.
13. "Take Away/4 My People" feat. Ginuwine (Dave Meyers, 2001)
The Miss E… So Addictive saga ended in tragedy: Three months after its release, Missy’s close friend and collaborator Aaliyah would die in a plane crash after shooting the video for “Rock the Boat.” Weeks later, the towers fell. For obvious reasons, Missy Elliott muted her surreal visuals to pay tribute in earnest. “4 My People,” which forms the video’s closing half, is an upbeat party anthem adorned with patriotic imagery. But no doubt due to the personal connection, the most rending imagery — falling petals, blooming flowers, crying angels — arrives in the first half dedication to Baby Girl.
“Gossip Folks” marks the first time Missy Elliott didn’t completely alter her look between videos. The setting is a school this time, but the ‘80s Kangol hat style seen in “Work It” remains even with the supporting dancers being more so ‘90s babies. But the flick didn’t hint that Missy was running out of ideas. The look made sense because the video sampled ‘80s cuts “Double Dutch Bus” and “Paul Revere.” Plus, “Gossip Folks” is mainly concerned with homage from the opening scenes’ matching tracksuits to Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels driving the bus at the end.
11. "We Run This" (Dave Meyers, 2006)
Turn-of-the-millennium Dave Meyers/Missy Elliott collaborations have been often described as futuristic. By 2006, the duo were just pulling from any timeline—past, present, or alternate. “We Run This” bounces back from “Teary Eyed” by imagining Missy Elliott as an OG Simone Biles, and giving us the avant-garde sight of the star as a voluptuous stick figure. “We Run This” was featured in the soundtrack of 2006 teen dramedy Stick It, in which the main teen is ordered back into gymnastics after getting arrested. Unsurprisingly, Missy’s video had more staying power.
10. “Pass That Dutch" (Dave Meyes, 2003)
“Pass That Dutch” cribs Missy signatures introduced in Miss E… So Addictive and Supa Dupa Fly. The former’s multi-song structure returns with three This Is Not a Test! tracks condensed into the four-and-a-half-minutes. Missy Elliott somberly writes with a quill pen in the sepia-toned Aaliyah tribute “Baby Girl Interlude,” then she dances in a field and throws in a What’s Happening!! reference. She closes the thing by becoming King Kong as “Wake Up” plays. In between it all is a sly flip of 1998’s “Beep Me 911,” where Missy plays a doll. Here, she’s a pageant winner celebrating in front of a crowd of mostly white dolls—a possible comment on mainstream beauty standards. Like Rhythm Nation 1814 era Janet Jackson, Missy could do some social critique and dance at once.
9. "Work It" (Dave Meyers/Missy Elliott, 2002)
Perhaps the most unnecessary part of the Under Construction era is when its lead single opens the track informing viewers that, “This is a Missy Elliott one-time exclusive.” Who else could it be? There’s Timbaland doing the robot, and bees gathering around turntables like Candyman started DJing. “Work It” marked a return to typical bizarro Missy Elliott fair after the somber “Take Away/4 My People” (Aaliyah and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes are memorialized through airbrushed portraits). It also features some of Missy’s most hilarious sight gags, including anti-gravity break dancing, the rapper playing it too cool for Prince, and a slave master getting the white slapped off of him. The video also features the first Missy video appearance of dancing girl wonder Alyson Stoner, who’d become a mainstay over the next few flicks.
8. "Hit 'Em wit da Hee” feat. Lil' Kim (Paul Hunter, 1998)
Lil’ Kim threatened to cast a hex on her rivals during her verse on the “It’s All About the Benjamins” remix. She’d step even further into witchcraft the next year on the final video of Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly era. “Hit 'Em wit da Hee” is a thematic contrast to Missy’s previous “Beep Me 911,” switching from yearning to ready to be single. Fittingly, the aesthetics are also a complete pivot; we go from the hyper-saturated dollhouse to a near-grayscale haunted castle with shots of Missy as a sorceress. “Hit Em wit da Hee” does bring back the Michael Jackson homages, though: Missy’s suited fit and the setting give servings of Ghost and “Smooth Criminal.”
“One Minute Man” starts off with a fairly obvious lean into its concept: An annoyed hotel attendant gives a guest a room with a $10 per minute deal, though he looks like a “$5 brother.” The Missy-led lobby choreography is crisp, but the video pushes into classic territory when she plops her head and her body starts dancing anyways. The song’s guest are at home within the ensuing weirdness. Trina in her Poison Ivy-green bedroom wear substitutes an obscenity with a capella exhales that’s barely less NSFW. Ludacris can’t quite figure out a bed’s hydraulics in another scene. He still looks cool figuring it out.
6. "Sock It 2 Me” feat. Da Brat and Lil' Kim (Hype Williams, 1997)
Hype Williams and Missy Elliott followed up their one-act Surreal Shiny Suit Era with the next obvious step: outer space. “Sock It 2 Me” skirted any video conventions associated with its obvious sexual theme and opted to go intergalactic before the Beastie Boys. As a result, Missy Elliott, Mega Man costumes, and flying space aliens can be mentioned in the same sensible sentence.
Along with being — for lack of a better term — different, “Sock It 2 Me” also continues Missy’s fixation on escapism. The scene where Missy and her dancers do Michael Jackson’s famed anti-gravity lean could be both homage and a callback: She’d write both Janet and Michael letters begging them to save her from her abusive life as a child. They never wrote back, but Missy did eventually get to say she collaborated with Janet, and got Da Brat on a hoverbike.
Fans didn’t only fall in love with Ciara because of her exceptional dancing ability and pop singing talent; she exuded a personality that cooed, I’m game. That’s sort of a prerequisite for appearing on a Missy lead single. In just her fifth music video appearance, she frolics in an old-timey white gown before she’s weightlessly thrown up against the wall. That’s just what could happen in a Dave Meyers/Missy Elliott reunion. “Lose Control” finds the two juking between artful and absurd. It opens with close-ups of the video stars in which the whites of their eyes are sharpened to beautifully contrast with their black skin. There’s also Fatman Scoop yelling and wearing suspenders. The video’s “On & On” coda adds in another treat: Missy’s love of anti-gravity choreography, plus Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee.
4. "Beep Me 911" feat. 702 and Magoo (Earle Sebastian, 1998)
“Beep Me 911” has Missy Elliott asking why a no-good is playing with her so much. The video takes that concept literally, where Missy and song features 702 and Magoo stiffly twitch like dolls, painted-on joints and all. Missy’s lone Earle Sebastian collaboration features excellence on all fronts: The constant close-ups on Doll Missy Elliott are at once alluring and disconcerting; the colorful attire — gaudy and plasticky — makes the video feel of its own universe; and the glitchy body movements would’ve been GIF fodder had the video dropped two decades later. It’s only here Magoo in a pompadour makes sense.
3. "She's a Bitch” (Hype Williams, 1999)
Missy Elliott decided to recreate her black chrome “She’s a Bitch” look when she performed at the 2017 VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. Who wouldn’t do the same if they had a chance to revive such a singular audacious look? “She’s a Bitch” was the first taste of what was in store for Da Real World, where she leaned harder into the former half of futuristic-soul. Her reunion with Hype Wlliams delivered a clip that blended black goth and Mad Max. A bald-headed Missy came through like a scythe compared to the whimsy of “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).”
It said she was a woman who came to dominate. “Music is a male-dominated field,” she said in an interview explaining the song. “Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident.” Her proclamation ended up costing a whopping $2 million, just $100,000 cheaper than Backstreet Boys’ CGI-filled “Larger Than Life.”
2. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (Hype Williams, 1997)
Missy Elliott solo debut came the same year the shiny suit era peaked with Mase and Diddy’s solo first albums both going platinum. Hype Williams—that’s him behind the lens for “Mo Money Mo Problems”—uses the same glossy, aggressively well-lit aesthetic. And yet, when Missy Elliott appears in the first frame with her back turned toward the fisheye lens in that iconic inflatable black outfit, we’re being introduced to a very singular agenda. The very optics of “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” represent an artist willful enough to bend modern pop in her image. Mainstream pop culture has a history of shunning thick black women: Missy was out here exaggerating her figure in her introduction to most of the world. At a basic level, the entire thing is too funky and vibrant to not be inherently inclusive (Diddy, Mase, and Lil' Kim also make cameo appearances). The next 10 years of pop would bend in Missy Elliott’s direction as well.
1. "Get Ur Freak On/Lick Shots" (Dave Meyers, 2001)
“Get Ur Freak On” is the Timbaland-produced, Indian music-inspired cousin of "Big Pimpin'," within the greatest-songs-of-the-21st-century tier. For the "Freak" video, we get an urban underground with Japanese ninjas. Meyers said in an interview that the set was inspired by a book titled Japanese Underground, but they “we really couldn’t afford to go to Japan or create actually what was in that book, a massive environment, but it gave me this idea of this underworld.”
This a fairly straightforward recollection that makes what actually goes down in the video feel more absurd — how does one go from that to this? While “being ahead of the curve” as a Missy descriptor is a cliché, the thrilling pace of “Get Ur Freak On” ventured just a little ahead of the human senses. How long did it take to hit you that that was indeed Missy’s saliva flying into that dancers mouth? Elsewhere, we pan underground toward discombobulated, body-painted dwellers; Missy’s neck pops toward the camera like a snake in a Jules Winnfield-esque, “Did I break your concentration?” moment. Nate Dogg pops up. Missy shoulder shimmies through it all. It was chaos. It was the new millennium.