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Soul Sisters

  Missy Elliott: This is Not a Test!

 

Elektra/Asylum, 2003

Rating: 4.0

 

    Alicia Keys: The Diary of Alicia Keys

 

J-Records, 2003

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: December 5, 2003

By Laurence Station

Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys come from entirely different musical worlds: the younger Keys, a classically trained Manhattan native, saw her multiplatinum 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor, win a slew of Grammys, racking up expectations for her to assume a role as front-runner of the growing neo soul movement. Elliott, a Southerner by way of Portsmouth, VA, steadily carved a niche for herself in the hip hop world, producing albums with her partner Timbaland and writing songs for others (most notably the late Aaliyah) before breaking out with her landmark 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly. For Keys, the world of privilege and critical adulation are part and parcel of her urbane, New Yorker identity. Elliott has a less celebrated pedigree, but most certainly possesses the one key thing Keys does not: street cred.

On Elliot's fifth release, This is Not a Test!, and Keys' sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, one can sense the gravitational pull between the two albums. Keys, far more than on her debut, attempts to integrate street culture with the more sedate, elegant R&B sound she's known for, while Elliott further refines her incorporation of smooth, soulful ballads into her typically audacious, anything-goes hip-hop milieu.

Another common thread linking the two is Timbaland, who produces several tracks for both. Whereas Missy receives the sharp, aggressively percussive and futuristic beats Timbaland's been crafting for her since Supa Dupa Fly, Keys' funkiest track, "Heartburn," is modeled on a classic Blaxploitation funk template. Keys has never sounded edgier, but the beat is so familiar in its retro inspirations as to draw unnecessary attention to the fact that Timbaland apparently reserves his most forward thinking programming for Elliott.

This is Not a Test! has a retro feel, too, though. Retrospective of Elliott's past few albums, that is. "Pass That Dutch," for example, blatantly retreads "Work It." (Granted, Missy could do a lot worse than recycle the fantastic beat from that Under Construction hit.) Elsewhere, "Wake Up" utilizes spiky, hollow drum loops behind Missy and Jay-Z's plea for listeners to rid urban neighborhoods of drugs and take pride in themselves. While not particularly groundbreaking, it nonetheless sounds unlike anything else on the album, and thus shines as the one moment where Missy and Timbaland deviate from the formula they've so studiously perfected over the years.

Thematically, Missy touches on familiar concerns, from the self-love call to arms "Pump It Up" ("Love my gut / So fuck the tummy tuck") to "Keep It Movin'," which details the pressures that go with trying to stay on top of, and continually pushing the envelope in, the rap game. "Toyz" hilariously finds her trying to stay incognito (and failing miserably) as she buys sex toys, while "I'm Really Hot" is a brash proclamation of all Elliott's self-described charms. More than anything else, This is Not a Test! is a fun listen: Missy obviously enjoys poking fun at herself, and doesn't shy away from promoting a sexually empowered female persona. This sense of exuberance largely excuses the presence of duds like the tepid ballad "It's Real" and the unsettling "Dats What I'm Talkin About" -- in which Missy plays the part of an all too willing underage nymphet to R. Kelly's older seducer. (Note to Kelly: Considering your recent legal woes involving young girls, perhaps this song isn't the savviest P.R. move.)

Missy's at her best when she's direct and raw. It's when she verges into Alicia Keys' territory that her footing is less sound. As for Keys, she certainly sounds like someone who wants to expand her repertoire beyond the less-than-exhilarating Adult Contemporary demographic. At least, that appears to be the case during the first half of Diary. After opening with "Harlem's Nocturne" and some flashy piano arpeggios, Keys jumps into the spunky "Karma," which overcomes lyrical simplicity ("What goes around comes around / What goes up must come down") via a nimble beat and Keys' committed performance. The aforementioned "Heartburn" and the seamless medley "If I Was Your Woman/Walk on By" lead up to the album's highpoint: "You Don't Know My Name," which mines a sample from Main Ingredient's "Let Me Prove My Love To You" for all it's worth but truly shines during Keys' closing spoken-word declaration to a man she's admired from afar. The slick production and classical influences fall away and we hear a young woman -- nervous, slightly embarrassed -- opening up emotionally. It's a powerfully refreshing and vulnerably human moment.

Diary's second half, however, plays like an online journal set to music. This is most obvious on "Diary," wherein Keys' suggests "Just think of me as the pages in your diary," and on through the appropriately titled "Slow Down." Keys plays it far too safe here: There's nothing that will offend, and the content is patently generic enough that almost anyone, lovelorn or heartbroken, can build a personal soundtrack of romantic woe from its raw materials.

Keys is note-perfect, a tad too polished; Elliott couldn't be more opposite. The main difference is that Elliott invests her material with an undeniable personal stamp -- an explosive personality that refuses to be denied. Keys is obviously still formulating her identity, and deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether she's got anything unique and distinctive to offer. For now, if you're interested in impeccable (if formulaic) craft, Keys is hands down your best bet. Those just looking to party, on the other hand, should make a beeline for Missy Elliott.

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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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