Listening to Missy Elliott's albums has always been like entering a pop playground where beats stop, stutter, and then slink toward a fusion of world music, classic electro, and good old-fashioned boom-bap swagger. From the tabla beat science of her breakout single, 2001's "Get Ur Freak On," to the chocha-shavin' backmasked chorus of 2003's seminal "Work It," Missy and frequent collaborator Timbaland have molded an adventurous yet fun aesthetic unrivaled in all of hip-hop. And though The Cookbook doesn't reach the heights of her previous albums -- namely Miss E ... So Addictive and Under Construction -- it is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop landscape that is growing increasingly dull and violent.
In many ways, The Cookbook seems like a rebuke of a genre that splits time between the strip club anthems of crunk and the overripe gangsta fantasies of G-Unit. The album is as quixotic as it is fun, as nostalgic as it is progressive. The Eighties-cripped electro of "Lose Control" sounds as fresh today as it did twenty years ago, and Slick Rick's verse on "Irresistible Delicious" proves that The Ruler still has one of the most immediately satisfying flows in hip-hop. Elsewhere "We Run This" flips the classic "Apache" break before transitioning into a euphoric marching-band stomp, while "My Struggles" lassos contributions from Grand Puba and Mary J. Blige, who sound every bit as fresh as they did on 1992's classic "What's the 411?" Hip-hop fans should thank Missy for making this reunion happen.
But as great as Missy's interpolations of old-school beats and lyrical tropes are, they are only part of the equation. As usual, there's a plethora of world beats and hip pop ballads. "Bad Man" channels the spirit of the third-world masses via a roaring bass line beneath rattling congas and contributions from dancehall emcee Vybez Cartel and Sri Lankan indie sensation/terrorist M.I.A. And while this reviewer tends to skip Missy's ballads, it's hard to deny the funny and tender "My Man," where Missy raps, "I'm never insecure when we together/Even though he tell me he in love with Ciara."
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Sure, The Cookbook suffers from Timbaland's absence -- he contributes only two songs to the album -- but the disc does manage to capture the gleeful sense of experimentation and abandon that has become Missy's trademark. It's no Miss E or Under Construction, but it's still miles ahead of everything else out there right now.