Hits And Misses: Missy Elliott’s Incredible Underwater Adventure (And Much More)

Our critical roundtable on the songs and videos of the week

When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Doreen St. Félix, Meaghan Garvey, Hazel Cills, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Molly Lambert, Tirhakah Love, Sasha Geffen, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.

Missy Elliott feat. Lamb, "I'm Better"

St. Félix: Leave it to Missy to stir up unadulterated glee about a music video in a definably post-music-video era. I saw otherwise weary and despondent people all but run to watch this video when it dropped, and then get momentarily lost in the underwater black Atlantis that longtime collaborator Dave Meyers and Missy Elliott dreamed up. Missy's videos are up there with Michael Jackson and Madonna's. With "I'm Better," you can count the formal elements — an all-female dance phalanx, body-melting special effects, and gorgeous, cartoonish makeup — and constantly reinvented backdrops. It feels like she's been taking an extended victory lap since upstaging Katy Perry at the 2015 Superbowl.

Garvey: I thought I was unfamiliar with producer-and-now-rapper Lamb, but oh my god — he made the beat for Beyoncé's “Countdown”! This automatically certifies him as a legend, but I really like how he uses that bleak, bass-heavy 808 Mafia palette here (down to the Kill Bill sirens) — the best Missy songs always sound like they just blew out your subs. This is my favorite video of hers in years. The eminently screenshot-ready underwater scenes made me think of Drexciya, the legendary Detroit techno duo who conceived of a dark Afrofuturist Atlantis in their work. And truly, who else can build such stunning mythological future universes other than Missy?

Vozick-Levinson: The video is amazing, agreed. Living up to the impossibly high standard Missy set for music videos in the first phase of her career can't be easy, but the radical originality of her vision here comes very close. (My favorite touch: Those goofy-ass inflatable exercise balls momentarily looking like the coolest thing on or off Earth. Missy isn't even in that scene, but it wouldn't work without her implied presence.) That said, I wasn't as instantly sold on the song. Those icy plink-plonks and stylized sirens sound like clichés to me at this point; Lamb may have produced "Countdown," but I wish he'd brought half of that song's irrepressible energy to this one. Still, Missy's uniqueness carries the day. Given her proven ability to rock the hell out of a literal garbage bag, I shouldn't be surprised that she was able to make a hot song out of a halfway-decent Southside/Metro Boomin knockoff.

Willis-Abdurraqib: Like most of Missy’s efforts throughout my entire life, I had to watch the video twice before even getting to my ability to enter the song. The video is so hypnotizing that it’s possible that you can ignore that the song is a bit bland and uneven. Honestly, there is an exercise ball in my house and I have never understood what the use for it is, but now I think I understand.

Lambert: I was so happy to spend time in Missy’s underwater kingdom. My only complaint is that we can’t all move there right now, as I am extremely ready for Missy to be our mermaid empress. Missy is incapable of giving anything but 120 percent in a video. This makes me fondly think about when I used to watch MTV for hours, waiting for the “One Minute Man” video to come on. Her “Save the Humans” jacket made me feel emo, for obvious reasons. WE LOVE YOU, MISSY, TAKE US WITH YOU TO BOTTOM OF THE BEAUTIFUL, BRINY SEA.

Mac DeMarco, "This Old Dog"

Vozick-Levinson: One time I was at a music festival in California, and the afternoon was growing late. I thought about taking a break before the headliners went on, but opted instead to check out Mac DeMarco at one of the smaller outdoor stages, figuring that it would be a chill time. It was not chill! Before I knew it, I was surrounded by an incongruously aggressive mosh pit — hundreds of rowdy teenage stoners jumping around, throwing elbows, and body-slamming one another (and me) through Mac's tender ballads. I staggered out of the crowd, dazed and amused and slightly bruised, and tried to make sense of what had just happened. Anyway, now I think of that every time I listen to Mac DeMarco. This song is really nice! Stay safe out there, kids.

Lambert: Loving this song's AM Gold vibe, which to be fair is my fave (and Mac’s). I enjoy Mac DeMarco’s stoned soft rock, and I’m really feeling "This Old Dog." Have you never been mellow?

Love: As someone deeply invested in the larger project of solving immortality, I dig DeMarco’s portrayal of transitioning beyond aged world-weariness. I can’t imagine a mosh pit breaking out during this faint and brooding number, but playing this song on a late night while sipping prosecco had me in knots. DeMarco’s subtle wail and refusal to bow to an apathy conceived in heartbreak are sources of strength.

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, "Let Go of My Ego"

Geffen: I could probably listen to Nnamdi tell any story for any length of time. His approach to writing lyrics reminds me of Mike Patton's, in that both consider the weight and texture of words as much as they do the semantic content, maybe even more so. It's hard to stop listening to "Let Go of My Ego" just because there's so much bouncing around in it. I feel more electricity from it on each pass, especially when the hook snowballs and explodes into a hook and a half at the end. Maximalism is still here with boxing gloves on.

Lambert: This is fucking awesome. And yes, Sasha! Totally Mike Patton.

Love: I agree. Nnamdi shares a story about breaking up and seeing your lover out in the world like rainbows and butterflies. His lines fill up every open space the looped track has to offer. In that way, he strikes me as an unofficial godson to the Little Brother cats, with a heart that’s more open to geekdom. The second verse is a standout; his spitball references to jeans companies (and his salute to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson”) has heartache embroidered in, and his vocal dynamism gives way to rich emotional textures that contradict the jovial music video.

PWR BTTM, "Vacation"

Geffen: Oh, hey, it's a field recording of the inside of my head over the last couple of weeks. PWR BTTM have never attempted dynamics quite this steep in-studio before, and I'm here for the guts it takes to yank a polite, weary folk-rock number completely off the tracks and into a burning canyon. Thematically, "Vacation" is familiar territory for the glam-punk duo — the woes of obsessive thinking and the itch for relief — but they've cranked the stakes this time. It hits right where it's supposed to.

Cills: I’m a delayed crier. I’m really into denying that I need to cry or that I’m letting the world’s worst get to me in the first place. Until, of course, a little thing sets me off and I’m ugly-crying for hours straight because at that point it's a full-on internal storm. “Vacation” reminds me of that impulse. I love how it skates by on weary exhaustion until “I swear that I’m fine, I’m like this all the time, I just think that I need a break,” after which it explodes into a full-on, noisy rock wail. Now that’s a release!

Vozick-Levinson: Oh, yes. Dig the way the discordant horn squeal intertwines with the guitar feedback in that final exclamation — PWR BTTM brought a one-person brass section along the last time I saw them play, and I am very excited about the possibility of their sound expanding outward until it consumes the whole universe. Every time I see one of their shows, I am reminded that they deserve to be the biggest band in the world. Their next album can't come soon enough.

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