And this dedication to be different has paid off, surprisingly. At this Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards at the American Airlines Arena, Elliott's "Lose Control" -- the leadoff single from her recently released album The Cookbook -- is nominated for six awards.
Unlike other video artists, Elliott's visual presentation never overcomes the music. She has worked out an aesthetic that complements her music's whizzing backmasked choruses, club-rattling bass lines, and oh-so-clever lyrics. "The videos are very important, especially since my music is so different from what you're used to hearing," Elliott explains. "Since 'The Rain,' I've always used the video as the visual piece to help people solve the song's puzzle. People didn't necessarily get my songs right off. But at this point, people accept my tracks because they know that I'm going to come with a video that's crazy. [The video] is the last piece in the puzzle and it's an important one."
Elliott hasn't always been in front of the camera. Born and raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, Elliott began her career behind the scenes as a writer for mid-Nineties chart toppers Aaliyah and 703, among others. And although her 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, caught the ear of listeners and tastemakers worldwide, not until the release of 1999's Da Real World -- and its singles "Hot Boys" and "She's a Bitch" -- did Elliott catapult into the international limelight.
From there she made the jump to superstardom off the strength of 2001's "Get Ur Freak On" from Miss E ... So Addictive. Both that song and her 2002 single "Work It" achieved a level of ubiquity normally reserved for the Michael Jacksons of the world. Elliott's tracks might skip from the retro-futurist funk of 2003's hit "Pass That Dutch" to the tabla beat science of "Get Ur Freak On," but they've all had one thing in common: Miami-by-way-of-VA producer Tim Mosley (better known as Timbaland) has been behind the boards. Lifetime friends, Elliott and Timbaland have had one of the more cherished and successful partnerships in all of hip-hop. So it came as a shock when word leaked that Elliott had opted to bring in outside producers and limit Timbaland's input to three tracks for The Cookbook .
"It was both scary and liberating," Elliott says of Timbaland's diminished role. "When you've been working with someone for that many albums, you feel the world won't be able to accept you without him."
Though it was a leap into the unknown, Missy believes it was a necessary one. It gave her the opportunity to work with A-list producers such as The Neptunes, Scott Storch, and Richard Harrison, and also freed her from a creative deadlock that many felt hampered her last album, 2003's This Is Not a Test! "Working with who I did definitely pushed me," Elliott comments. "Tim has a certain style, and I know what direction I'm going with him. But working with different producers made me go somewhere else, to try different accents and different routines. You hear a different Missy on this album."
Tim fans need not despair: Pop music's greatest producer will be reunited with his favorite muse. "I'm quite sure that Tim and I are going to be together," reveals Elliott. "It's not like we had an argument and aren't talking. Tim's my brother and always will be."
It's not just new production whizzes and a revitalized Elliott that make The Cookbook so special; there's also her typical lineup of guest stars that includes the biggest names from pop music and the hippest minds of the underground. Identity-crisis Houston rapper Mike Jones (who?) appears on "Joy," while American Idol winner Fantasia lends her soulful swagger to "My Man." But the collaboration that has critics swooning is "Bad Man," where Elliott shares microphone duties with M.I.A. -- the Sri Lankan MC who has been declared the next big thing by the critical intelligista.
"She's hot," says Elliott. "Soon as I heard her album I thought, 'I gotta get this girl on my album.' I'm good at spotting new sounds, and M.I.A. is definitely the artist right now with that sound."
It's a two-way street. Not only does Elliott's long line of freshly minted collaborators gain a boost from being on her album, but also Elliott stays relevant by incorporating cutting-edge artists. "I don't think I could [stay fresh] by myself," she comments. "I most definitely have to keep listening to new styles of music. If I just stayed on one style, I don't think I could keep going on like I have been."
Elliott may let M.I.A and others spice up the party, but she maintains control: "Missy is still going to be Missy. Whatever I get on, it's still me. If I do a record with Madonna or Mariah Carey, even if I did a record with Faith Hill, it's still going to be a Missy record."
The album's first single, "Lose Control," is another quintessential Elliott hit. A hyperactive sample from Cybotron's classic Detroit techno cut "Clear" propels the self-produced track to impossible speeds before dropping out for an a cappella vocal from Elliott protégé Ciara and raucous shout-outs by hypeman-extraordinaire Fatman Scoop. It's the sort of adrenaline-pumping track that makes you sweat just listening to it, and it almost didn't happen. "I had been wanting to use that sample for a long time, but I was scared because I thought the record was too fast for radio," she says. "I didn't think people would be ready for something so up-tempo yet. I waited for a while, but I eventually just said, 'I'm gonna bump it. If it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't.'"
It indeed worked and, perhaps equally important, produced yet another groundbreaking video -- this one with Elliott and company getting down in the sand. "We got out there in that hot-ass dessert -- it was truly, truly hot -- and we worked it out," she says with a chuckle. "I love when it comes down to making the videos. I can sit and think of all the crazy stuff I want to do. I'm totally 100 percent involved with how my videos look."
Despite her innovation in videos and many award nominations throughout the years, she has brought home only one Moon Man -- a fact not lost on her: "I'm sincere when I tell you that [I'm] always honored to be nominated. But by the same token, I just picked up my first win a couple years ago after being nominated so many times.... But I don't control MTV."
While she may not control the boob tube, she has certainly made the medium much more fun over the past decade. We hope to see pop's reigning queen dancing with the Moon Men at Sunday's VMAs.