When it comes to churning out hits, most musicians stick to the recipe that gave them sweet success the first time around.
If a rapper’s shoot’em-up tales sold 8 million albums, there’ll be more on the follow-up.
If a starlet’s skimpy outfits and booty-shaking lured fans to the record stores 5 million times, count on similar apparel and moves the next time.
One of the rare exceptions is hip-hop’s mad scientist, Missy Elliott. The rapper/singer/ superproducer has kept her platinum status for almost a decade by giving fans the unpredictable, the unfathomable each time out.
With surreal, sci-fi sounding grooves, out-there lyrics and trippy videos, Elliott has thrown listeners for a loop so many times that when something intoxicatingly weird makes its way to the radio, you can almost guess it’s Elliott.
"She’s totally creative — she’s just pushed the envelope of hip-hop and music period a lot farther than ever before," says Alicia Keys, who toured with Elliott and Beyoncé last year.
But as she prepares to drop her sixth album, ‘‘The Cookbook,’’ today, Elliott is giving her fans the unexpected once again by sounding a little more conventional.
‘‘It’s more to the center,’’ says Elliott, grinning. ‘‘It worked for its time — the gimmicky, character ‘Missy,’ but now, it’s like with music changing so much, it’s more in that center lane.
‘‘It’s still left, it’s still Missy, that left Missy,’’ she adds, ‘‘but it meets that middle ground.’’
Well, not quite middle ground.
Her first video, ‘‘Lose Control,’’ still has those head-scratching, eye-popping images that have made her a groundbreaking visual artist; and there are still those sex lyrics that are freaky enough to make Lil’ Kim pause.
Still, for those looking for that ‘‘where-did-that-come-from’’ groove that defies categorization, Elliott has gone and tinkered with the recipe. While right-hand man Timbaland is still providing hypnotic beats, for the first time Elliott has branched out, tapping the Neptunes and other producers to stretch her sound.
‘‘We started just feeling like, ‘Wow, it sounds like Tim and Missy, which is fine, but . . . It was almost like what you expected from Tim and Missy, and I wanted to give people the unexpected,’’ says Elliott.
For Elliott, who began her solo success with a video featuring her formerly chunky self in a fat suit, the pressure was tiring — ‘‘especially when the expectations become so high of you . . . you always remember the last record that might have been really successful and you’re trying to outdo that or trying to make something that don’t sound like the last record.’’
Elliott didn’t want anything that sounded like 2003’s ‘‘This Is Not a Test.’’ It was the follow-up to her 2002 ‘‘Under Construction,’’ an album that produced hits like the sexually charged ‘‘Work It’’ and ended on many critics’ ‘‘best of’’ lists. It was her biggest seller (2.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan).
But ‘‘This Is Not a Test’’ fell flat with fans and critics alike, and didn’t duplicate the double-platinum sales of ‘‘Under Construction.’’ It was her first album not to go platinum, selling just 690,000 copies.