Among those deeply affected by the deaths of Aaliyah and TLC's Lisa ''Left Eye'' Lopes, Missy Elliott wants you to know she's at the top of the list. If you doubt it, listen to her unusual spoken introduction to Under Construction, in which she tells us she's a changed woman, one who's reorganized her priorities, is ''trying to rebuild,'' and is less tolerant of ''anger and gossip.'' In an analogy only a commerce-conscious rapper could make, she doesn't understand why we can't get along the way Donald Trump and Bill Gates do.
Luckily, the loss of her friends and peers hasn't altered a singular vision that continues to set her apart from other female rappers. With each album, Elliott has grown more confident and individualistic, not to mention more bizarre. Its somber intro out of the way, her fourth disc picks up where ''Get Ur Freak On'' left off. The zigzagging, staccato lurches and wrecking-ball bass lines of longtime collaborator Tim Mosley, a.k.a. Timbaland, are back in force. This time, he's constructed dance-floor jams that are experimental and challenging in their malfunctioning-robot grooves (''Go to the Floor,'' ''Work It'') or swooping and slippery (''Slide''). What sound like sitars, rapping aliens, and the world's funkiest vacuum cleaners zoom in and out. Over these effects, Elliott boasts, freestyles, sings about her love of old-school rap, oozes lust (''Light my fire dirty/Like the way you serve me/Stimulate my body''), and unapologetically explains her bad mood (''My attitude is bitchy/'Cause my period is heavy''). One imagines Elliott and Timbaland egging each other on in the studio, trying to make the other concoct even stranger rhythms or rhymes.
Left to her own devices -- that is, on the few tracks on which Timbaland isn't involved -- Elliott reveals a much softer underbelly. Her duet with Beyoncé Knowles, ''Nothing Out There for Me,'' is a dialogue between a woman (Knowles) who's smitten with a man and a friend (Elliott) who thinks the guy's too controlling. But it's little more than a sweet musical nothing, as is ''Can You Hear Me,'' a heartfelt tribute to Aaliyah and Lopes. ''P***ycat,'' another non-Timbaland song, has a similar pillow-soft vibe, but it's a far better example of Elliott's quirkiness: In a perverse twist, the lyrics find her addressing her private part, pleading for it not to let her down so she can snare a certain guy. Hip-hop divas have a way of weirding out after early success -- see Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige -- but Elliott's doing it in the best way.