BACK! BACK! BACK! If this album doesn’t come out in 2015, some of us are going to cry, y’know?
It’s so ironic that Missy Elliott should choose to include Pharrell Williams on this, one of her ultra-rare and highly sought singles. Williams has spent the last decade (read: the number of years we’ve spent longing for but without a Missy Elliott album) peddling watered down — and sometimes even stolen outright — funk to the masses. Whether it’s with Daft Punk or with Robin Thicke, Pharrell represents funk at its most pop, its most accessible, its most digested. Its most painfully boring. Missy Elliott layers “WTF” with so much sound, rivulets of acrylic paint scraped and swirled to reveal rainbows of color. This is not the tepid Venus of Pharrell Williams, it’s the boiling rivers of Missy Elliott’s Mars. And yet, though he’s so wheezing and unoffensive everywhere else, here Pharrell sounds interesting. It’s a byproduct of touching genius. Missy elevates him, she strips him of his schtick and then cobbles his parts back together, weaving him into her song as just another texture. This is masterful work.
Jonathan Bradley: Yo, straight up, Missy killed that shit tonight, for real. I don’t even care about her being pregnant by Michael Jackson. You know what we should do? We should go get her album when it come out. Hiiiiiii Missy!
Alfred Soto: I don’t know how Missy fans regard This is Not a Test!. To my ears her sparest collection of beats is her most insinuating, so imagine my surprise when “WTF” uses “Pass the Dutch” and “Spelling Bee” as template. Stretching syllables like taffy, her voice imperious and androgynous so that she sounds like a Holy Ghost of subversion, Missy atones for several halfhearted comeback singles.
Thomas Inskeep: Like she hasn’t missed a beat (we’ll choose to forget that pair of 2012 promo singles), Missy returns from her too-damn-long hiatus with her old Virginia Beach buddy Pharrell in tow. He’s not just behind the board, providing a shit-hot beat better than about anything on his album GIRL, but he takes the second verse too, reminding everyone listening that he can flip some lyrics, too. As a rapper, Pharrell is well-suited to pair with Missy, as words, nonsensical as the wanna be, just trip off his tongue. (I especially like “Lyrically I’m/Optimus Prime.”) But of course, there’s no rapper quite like Missy, and she proves that again here. I’m still unpacking some of her lyrics, but that’s the thing about her: she makes you wanna listen and keep listening until you figure out all the words, because she doesn’t waste a syllable; even the seemingly nonsense syllables have a purpose, a place. In service to Missy’s tongue, Pharrell throws in assorted sounds, changes the beat up, and they make an incredibly dynamic duo. This is how you do it.
Josh Winters: I think I might officially be old and boring now.
Leonel Manzanares: Percussion-heavy and aimed at the dancefloor,”WTF (Where They From)” is the exact kind of track we love from Missy, but unfortunately, it is also the exact kind of Pharrell beat we’re already weary of. Aside from the spectacular Dave Meyers video, this song doesn’t have that much to offer, and let’s face it, the chorus is kind of dumb. The flow in the verses, though, is marvelous, and Mr. P’s rap, name-checking both Hermes Trismegistus and Optimus Prime (!), is the highlight of a comeback that promised a lot, but didn’t fully deliver.
Will Adams: Hey, I’m gonna do something I’ve never done and give you all an exclusive look at my train of thought while listening to “WTF” for the first time: encounters the cluttered drum track, Missy’s fun-as-shit hook; this is cool, a solid return that could have been a bit longer or more robust. It’s probably a . Recalls Missy’s verse on “BURNITUP”; okay, I suppose this is really a . Checks back mentally on “9th Inning” and “Triple Threat”; wow, this really is great! And great rhymes with ! Flashes back to the “Last Friday Night” remiOH MY GOD SUCH A  WELCOME BACK MISSY THANK GOD YOU’RE GOOD AGAIN. Remembers “Lose Control” as song ends; okay yeah, this is probably a:
Katherine St Asaph: Missy enjoys that rare level of gone-too-soon acclaim where she can release anything, of any quality, and get at least a starting YAYOMGWTF burst of applause (see: 2012). Fortunately “WTF,” despite its OTNN (on-the-nose name), is good, kinetic fun, not to mention the most Pharrell’s tried in years.
Brad Shoup: The future will claim you. Maybe later than it does others, but it’s still coming. Missy was the future, and so was Pharrell, and now those futures are over and they’re just legends. But past futures tend to shine into whatever future we’re enjoying right now. So Pharrell tries on a Missy flow and ends up in 1983. And Missy says “this another hit” and a whole decade is folded like an accordion. The soundtest bass and skittering hi-hat recall Switch’s production for Amanda Blank’s “Might Like You Better” (a couple stillborn futures, there); Missy’s trick is making the past real (the perpendicular melodicism, the famed Brit-indebted soundbending) and also: not even past.
Edward Okulicz: Given that we’ve had to put up with guest verses of varying quality and underwhelming teaser and one-off singles for a really long time now, “WTF” has zero chance of living up to hype or expectation. But a thuddingly weird banger in the vein of “Pass That Dutch” that would have been welcome eight years ago feels downright heaven-sent today. Pharrell Williams continues his trend of “me? I’m okay, I guess” vocal contributions. He’s good enough, but Missy’s essential.
Crystal Leww: I listen to Anna Lunoe’s Beats 1 show every week; Lunoe is comprehensive without being pretentious, and her show is always a quick survey of what’s hot in dance music, though not necessarily confined to bloops and bleeps. Music that is dance-esque makes its way onto the show just so long as it bangs. This last week, Lunoe played “WTF (Where They From)” fairly early on in the set, and it fit along seamlessly, like Missy Elliott might as well have been a fairly decent EDM producer. She’s not the only rapper who draws heavily from dance and certainly others have leaned (+ UK grime, duh) more heavily into the sound since she last released an album. But Missy’s influence is unmistakable, especially for the wave of women who came after her. We’ve spent the last five years in music being subjected to comparisons of all female rappers to the current heavyweight Nicki Minaj. Criticism that compares women to each other isn’t always bad, but often in this case, the specific comparison of all women rapping to Nicki is beyond lazy: it’s straight up wrong. How much Nicki Minaj do you actually hear in the music of Dominique Young Unique, Rye Rye, Tkay Maidza? In comparison, I can’t help but hear Missy Elliott all over their work instead. So many things that make Elliott so distinctive, so much of the style that others have tried to bottle up and reuse, in full display on “WTF”: a beat that keeps the beat bouncing, the way she leans into her regional accent where “faded” sounds like “fakin’,” where “though” turns into “doe,” and wow, that hook that draaaaaaags and wraaaaaps and makes itself work over that propulsive beat. Later on in Lunoe’s set, she played Rell Rock on Stanton Warriors and Tony Quattro’s “Keep It Movin'” and the new George Maple, What So Not, and Baauer-produced Tkay Maidza bop “Ghost.” These young women are still being heralded as the future, and their inclusion in a set next to Missy Elliott just made sense. This is not to discount Nicki Minaj at all (she’s obviously one of the rap greats), but as a snapshot in time of women making hip hop in 2015, Missy Elliott’s influence is undeniable. Missy Elliott has always made music that sounds like the future.
Ian Mathers: I love this song so much I came back just to write a blurb for it.