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Missy Elliott moves to the ‘center lane’

Rap's big innovator finds more subtle sound on her newest album
/ Source: The Associated Press

When it comes to churning out hits, most musicians stick to the same 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 unheard, 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 Beyonce last year.

But as she prepares to drop her sixth album, “The Cookbook,” on Tuesday, Elliott is giving her fans the unexpected once again by — gasp! — sounding a little more conventional.

“It’s more to the center,” says Elliott, flashing a grin as she describes her latest change-up. “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’re 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.

Timbaland also “wanted to try other people to see how would it sound.”

“I was coming up with new ideas but I wasn’t quite ready,” he explains.

“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.

And 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 critic’s “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.

Elliott says she was under pressure to produce another hit for her former record label, Elektra, which folded into Atlantic Records last year.

“It came out extremely too quickly for me. I didn’t want it to come out when it did,” she says.

So with “The Cookbook,” which boasts collaborations with Mary J. Blige, Slick Rick, Ciara, Fantasia and Mike Jones, Elliott made sure she took the time to get it right.

As she strokes her new “baby,” a Yorkie puppy named Poncho sleeping in her lap, she also cites “different experiences in your life that you want to talk about.”

Among the different experiences for Elliott: her UPN reality show “The Road To Stardom,” a talent competition that showed wannabes the struggles of making it to the top. “I wanted people to see the stages before becoming an artist, like it’s a hard grind,” she says.

Like other rappers, she also has the requisite clothing line, Respect ME, after inking a deal with Adidas.

Personally, she went through issues that she didn’t delve into on the album. One of her biggest was learning who not to trust after getting burned by so-called friends in the past, she says.

“That’s the biggest thing that artists get hurt by, is knowing that their company, and some of the closest ones up under them are the ones that should be watched out for,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of those.”

Most Elliott songs don’t talk much about painful emotional issues. That changes a bit on “My Struggles,” in which she briefly touches on the domestic abuse she witnessed as a child.

“I talked about my father being abusive to my mother — people have never heard me talk about anything like that. That brings people a little bit more personal with Missy,” says the notoriously private entertainer, who typically eschews interviews and chats little about her life outside the limelight.

With this album, Elliott seems to be a little more willing to let the public into her world.

“I want to be on the cover of Us Weekly!” she says with a laugh.