Song 257: Missy Elliott, “Work It” (2002)

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Eleven years later, this song still sounds like it comes from another planet. “Work It” is like a blast of weirdness from the future.

Which itself is strange, considering much of the track is so old-school in many ways. From the song’s intro, which features a sample from “Request Line” by Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three from 1984 to the breakdown that cribs from Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper” (itself a sample from Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” a cover of a song by Paul Simon). Much about Under Construction in general is old-school, especially its cover, which features Elliott in pink Nikes in front of a huge boombox.

So how in the hell does this thing sound so much like science fiction? There’s Timbaland’s beat, which sounds like a theremin gone wrong, but there’s also the famous backwards line (which is simply “I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it” reversed). It’s not a complicated production move, but all these years later, it sounds amazing. I think it works so well because it’s so stark and simple, so clear in its craziness.

Elliott herself accomplishes some innovation in this song: most importantly, she raps about her sexual prowess, in terms both amusingly ridiculous (“I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” for starters) and blunt (“before you come, I need to shave my chocha”). I love that she does this (ahem) reversal, but I also love that she does it without calling much attention to it. Nowhere in the song does she point out that she’s rapping about sex the way her male colleagues do; she’s simply doing it, unapologetically and honestly. Like the song’s production, Elliott’s lyrics are stark, clear, and awesome.

One other innovation to mention: “Work It” is credited with helping introduce “badonkadonk” to the mainstream. Now you know who to thank.

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