Perhaps you saw the gossip-site reports coming out of the Lovers & Friends Festival in Las Vegas last weekend: Allegedly, Chris Brown and Usher had gotten into some kind of tiff backstage during Missy Elliott’s set. The two singers went on to… Wait a minute. There was a Missy Elliott show? Stop the presses … this seemed like a case of burying the lead, as they say in news circles. Hip-hop fans knew what the real headlines should have been on that story: A unicorn had been sighted during a full solar eclipse, as Halley’s comet made a rare pass over Brigadoon — or other metaphors to that effect — if Elliott was being sighted back on a stage.
Something slightly rarer still occurred Tuesday night in southern California’s Inland Empire: a stand-alone headlining show by Elliott. As one tweeter put it: “Why Yaamava’ Theatre?” — wondering, reasonably, why Elliott was following her festival appearance not with a full tour or, say, a night or two at the Hollywood Bowl, but a one-off gig at a 2,500-seat theater at a casino-resort at least an hour outside of L.A. in off-the-beaten-track Highland? The Vegas festival and subsequent casino concert are it, as far as what’s on Elliott’s public itinerary following the news of her impending Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. The last time she did anything like a standard tour was 13 years ago, and since then, Elliott might not have done much more than a dozen full sets, almost all of them at festivals, none in theaters. So no wonder the cheapest tickets on the day of the show for her SoCal appearance were going for $500-plus.
Why Yaamava’, though? “Why ask why” would probably be the answer for the 2,500 who counted themselves fortunate to be in the door that hadn’t really been on a lot of other SoCal residents’ radar till the tweets were already coming in from the show. The resort seems to be using some of that high-roller money to attract artists that could and do play much bigger venues (Dave Matthews Band is coming up, for instance, a month before they play the Hollywood Bowl), so the audiences attending these more intimate shows may not be too inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. And, in fact, the Yaamava’ Theatre (which opened at the former San Manuel Casino just over a year ago with a premiere gig by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is the kind of ideal mid-size venue that L.A. County still shockingly lacks: a 2,000-to-3,000-seater with fixed seating and good, sloped sightlines. That’s something that’s still rarer in Southern California than a Missy Elliott show.
Obviously, the creator of “Work It” is not into working often. (That goes on the recorded side, too; her last full album came out 18 years ago, although she’s fronted or been featured on many singles since then, and put out a four-song EP in 2019.) So your inclination might be to pre-handicap expectations for her return to live performance: Surely she’s going to be a little bit rusty… and that will be OK, because she’s a legend and beloved even if she needs to find her sea legs for a minute. But at the Yaamava’, it seemed apparent that rust does sleep, because Elliott was in top form, as if she’s rehearsing and touring this band and these dancers constantly and this was just another night on a long, adrenaline-driven road trip. She presented herself as the full package: looking great, sounding great, energized by the crowd and buoyed by her own natural bon vivant-ancy, on top of the production values you’d expect from a show built to travel.
This had to be the prelude to a full, major tour announcement… an out-of-town tryout, if you will, for an arena outing to come, which would be more than appropriate (and newsworthy) in a Hall of Fame year. Right? But we’ve been wrong before.
Elliott blew through close to 25 songs in an exceedingly brisk 55 minutes — these catalog choices averaging out at, yes, about two minutes a piece. There was a sense of collective surprise among the audience when the legend “The End” appeared on the big screen to signal things were over, less than an hour in; for those who had bought tickets for four-figure fees, there might have been some calculating on the drive home about just how many dollars each minute amounted to. If Elliott does take this show on the road, she might do well to prepare attendees for the final shock by letting them know the end is nigh ahead of time, lest they miss the finale going out for a cocktail break. But it’d be hard to say she missed many hits getting to that point, and their abridgment in most cases felt less like a cheat than a reasonable means of creating an adrenalin rush just about non pareil. The set was little short of perfect; you just couldn’t help if you wanted her and her crew to do it all over again as soon as it ended.
Even with two costume changes, Elliott was not off stage for long, with big-screen UFO graphics and what was eventually revealed to be 18 dancers — plus a resident skater — plugging the holes while she was changing. A sequined red jumpsuit gave way to a short-sleeved black suit of similar sparkle to, finally, a mostly white Fendi “Baguette” suit with an enormous pocket in front. (The product placement level was high, there, as Elliott endorsed the Fendi outfit on social media: “The pocket in the front is so convenient for some1 like me who carry so much stuff in my hands now I can rock the hoodie & use the pocket as a purse,” she enthused on Twitter, for anyone who left the show wondering why Elliott was rocking the designer-fashion equivalent of a kangaroo pouch for the second half of the show.) The glam did little to take away from the gig feeling like a street celebration at heart, with Elliott grinning ear to ear and rapping heart to heart as the dancers broke from formation for moments of ’90s-style house party improv.
Any suspense over whether Elliott would think the Hall of Fame honor important enough to mention during the course of a show finally ended when a hypeman roused the crowd’s enthusiasm for it with two late mentions, while a Hall of Fame graphic took over the screen. She took time out herself to mention that she was only the third woman to get into the hall in her first year of 25-years-on eligibility, offering props to Janis Joplin and Madonna for being the two to accomplish it before her. (She’d be the fourth if you count Chrissie Hynde, as the frontwoman for the Pretenders, but no need to get into asterisks.)
As the first female rapper to be inducted into the hall, and possibly the last for a while, given her enduring supremacy, Elliott is undiminished in 2023 as a performer at the nexus where you most hope to find a veteran: at the intersection of skill and joy. In the biblical sense, Elliott not doing full shows any more than she does counts as hiding a light under a bushel. She’s more than earned the right to hit the road as much or as minimally as she wants to, but fans can justifiably hope that it’s not just San Bernardino-adjacent casino-goers who get the chance this year to feel like they’ve hit the jackpot.