The grand challenge for innovators is to continually explore uncharted territory, but that task gets trickier and more challenging with each successive album. Rapper Missy Elliott and rapper-producer Timbaland revolutionized hip-hop and R&B with their seminal 1997 debut Supa Dupa Fly and a series of groundbreaking, unostentatiously feminist albums and singles that challenged, without a hint of didacticism or self-consciousness, hip-hop's body-image issues and regressive conception of female sexuality. But by the time of 2003's This Is Not A Test, the dynamic duo was revisiting past triumphs. The result was far from an embarrassment, but it did seem like a step back for one of rap's most adventurous forces. Elliott's latest album, The Cookbook, has a similarly familiar quality, but it marks an enormous break for Elliott, in that Timbaland produced only a few of its tracks, essentially making it Elliott's first real solo album.
But if the pressure of proving herself outside of one of hip-hop's most successful and important duos is wearing on Elliott, she doesn't let it show. Floating effortlessly through tracks with her trademark ease and playfulness, Elliott jumps from high to high on the album's stellar first half, whose abundant transcendent moments and eclecticism suggest an alternate greatest-hits collection. The infectious throwbacks "Irresistible Delicious" and "My Struggles" wouldn't sound out of place on 2002's old-school love letter Under Constuction, complete with retro guest appearances from Slick Rick and Grand Puba, respectively. The first single, "Lose Control," picks up the ecstatic, libidinous dance-floor vibe of Miss E. ...So Addictive, while the first track's inclusion of Mike Jones illustrates Elliott's longtime knack for joining forces with whoever qualifies as pop music's Next Big Thing.
The Cookbook's first half is so strong, in fact, that it might give Timbaland reason to worry about his future job security, but the album falters a bit in its second half as the peaks get scarcer and the bouillabaisse of different producers, sounds, and vibes begins to take a toll on the album's cohesion. But even when it misses, it never feels strained. At this point, Elliott has nothing left to prove, but The Cookbook nevertheless proves incontrovertibly that she doesn't need Timbaland's beat mastery to create a compelling album.