Often the simplest way for us to rationalize the relative unpopularity of our favorite pop music is to say that the performer is “ahead of his time.” If there were ever an artist whose ambition and ego were suited by that rationalization, it’s England’s 28-year-old self-proclaimed superstar Tricky, a genius-in-progress who has moved beyond not only hip-hop but also trip-hop, the “alternative” scene in which he first made his name. Despite constant adulation for Tricky (who plays Metro on Saturday) from the press on both sides of the Atlantic, America’s notoriously conservative music market has barely begun to appreciate his achievement. What better proof of his prescience could there be?
There’s a partial if powerful truth in there somewhere, yet the notion that we can pronounce any of our contemporaries “ahead of his time” is plain loopy. History isn’t some secret path whose course can be divined; as someone once said, history is a shout in the street, and that’s precisely why, critical consensus be damned, Tricky’s latest album, Pre-Millennium Tension, isn’t quite as fab as those that preceded it. Tricky has repeatedly stated in interviews that he wants to leapfrog over today’s music into something newer, brasher, more challenging. To some degree he achieves that on his latest record, but in so doing he loses what made his first record a masterpiece–an awesome command of the contradictions that defined a very particular time and place.
That time was the first half of the 90s; that place, the western port city of Bristol. Then and there acts like Massive Attack–of which Tricky was a junior member–and Portishead gained recognition for blending soul, reggae, and cabaret rock, hip-hop style, into the sad, ethereal concoction dubbed trip-hop. By and large, it was recognized as the most imaginative and commercially friendly sound yet to arise from the slippery genre that Robert Christgau has labeled “post-dance” (a genre that includes ambient, cut-and-mix dub, and other hard-to-classify strains of quirky groove music). But Tricky hated the trip-hop label with a passion. He said so constantly, claiming in one interview that the term was invented by “a bunch of trendy wankers” who couldn’t differentiate his unique abilities from the rest of the Bristol scene. “What I’m doing, no one comes before me,” he said, and his solo debut, Maxinquaye (Island), was intended as proof.
Released in early 1995, Maxinquaye transformed trip-hop’s soulful, melancholy dreamscape into a claustrophobic labyrinth of alienation. It was a post-dance album for postapocalyptic England. Tricky’s sabotage of trip-hop came from all directions: he inserted discordant sound effects beneath the style’s smooth synth washes, and in his delirious, half-mumbled raps he captured the aggression of American hip-hop without imitating its bluster. Most important, he introduced his great vocal foil (and lover), Martina, a 20-year-old whose thin, almost passive singing gave Tricky’s cruel lyrics a chilling bite (the most quoted couplet must be “I fuck you in the ass / Just for a laugh”). Together these elements made a lush, ferocious music, so compelling it needed no getting used to yet so fresh it made post-dance albums by acts from the Chemical Brothers to Goldie sound innocent and obvious, like quaint oldies.
Maxinquaye landed on almost everyone’s top-ten list in 1995 (mine included), but it turned out to be just a preview of Tricky’s manic ambition. In the last two years the scrawny scowler has produced, written, and remixed songs for admiring peers from Elvis Costello to Garbage, and he’s released two collaborative side projects on his own brand-new label, Durban Poison: a full-length CD with famous friends like Bjork and Neneh Cherry, modestly titled Nearly God, and a five-song EP with budding New York rappers and R & B singers called Tricky Presents Grassroots. The hosannas sung for the heavier of the two, the throbbing, wandering, often tuneless Nearly God, correctly describe Tricky’s progress: “Makes the bulk of Maxinquaye sound as nonthreatening and comfortable as elevator music” (Spin); “Takes the spirit of Maxinquaye to a new level of brilliantly splintered funk” (Details).
Pre-Millennium Tension crawls along the same barren ledge of clinical anomie as Nearly God, but makes that record sound like the extended jam session it was. Supported by the faithful Martina (the mother of his baby daughter but no longer his lover), Tricky once again mutters about betrayal, failed love, and naked egotism in a set of caustic raps, sinister drones, and ghostly dirges. But instead of Maxinquaye’s fully developed grooves, Tricky gives us two- or three-note ostinatos that reduce the rhythm to an insistent pulse; instead of luxuriant synth textures, he adds odd samples that grate like warped Arabic records. Tricky laid out other mechanics of the album in an interview with Detour magazine: “I stripped it down, let the drums do a lot of the work. Instead of melodies, like on Maxinquaye, a lot of vocals are just da-da-da-da-da….That’s why I kind of see it as more punk rock.”
Or, he might have said, less trip-hop–and there’s the rub. Though several cuts are as captivating as anything he’s ever done, most are just more bitter, not more better. Many critics have proclaimed the bitterness another Great Leap Forward, but they seem to be overlooking how much less fulfilling it is than the more sedate Maxinquaye. I appreciate difficult music as much as the next earphoned rock writer, but just the fact that something is depressing or taxing doesn’t mean it’s avant-garde or even interesting. Tricky’s real trick on Maxinquaye was the way this self-professed pothead turned dead-end despair into a deeply satisfying buzz by weaving his nightmarish vision into blissful grooves–that is, into the trip-hop that he so adamantly disclaimed.
In trying to untangle that paradox I kept coming back to another British sensation unfortunate enough to be “ahead of his time”–John Lydon. Both Lydon and Tricky exploded into the music world relatively unannounced, both evinced a thrilling ability to make everything around them sound outdated, both burned with a frightful will to smash traditions and labels. It’s easy to assume, then, that both also came equipped with some kind of superhuman ability to outstrip history, as if one were truly the Antichrist and the other nearly God.
In reality the greatest achievements of both men were the ones in which they mustered the talent God gave them to address the hand dealt them by history. Lydon’s Johnny Rotten persona sprang from his resentment as an Irish kid growing up in a very hostile part of London at the height of the Troubles. Tricky’s story substitutes race for ethnicity, but otherwise it’s surprisingly similar. After the suicide of his mother and flight of his father, the undersized, asthmatic Adrian Thaws was raised by various relations in a neighborhood full of “Irish youth carrying knives and shotguns,” as he put it in Detour. Though he was constantly threatened by racist thugs, he insists that this “white ghetto” became as much a part of him as his black skin. When he joined up with the DJs and MCs who would become Massive Attack, he brought to the interracial crew his love of both hip-hop and the Specials, Bob Marley and David Bowie. Though Tricky initially tried to be a straight rapper, his background came through strongly as he and his friends went about inventing trip-hop, and the contradictions within that background–call it the tension between love and hate–reached their apex on Maxinquaye.
Of course, race is only one concept Tricky tweaks; at his best, he also fucks with class and gender, pleasure and disaffection, love and power. But his best work has always hinged on his ability to combine a “black” idiom (sensual dance music) with a “white” construct (bitter bohemian asceticism) and come out with something distinct from both. So in a way, yes, his artistic success can be measured by America’s commercial indifference: Tricky never sounded “blacker” than on Maxinquaye, but until now he has never quite fit into any of the black or white categories so entrenched in our segregated music industry. As he leaves trip-hop behind on Pre-Millennium Tension, however, the white alternative audience is suddenly finding it easier to cozy up to him. To some degree, his bold experimentation has actually made him more conventional–modern-rock radio stations have taken notice of the spidery but standard guitar riffs that ground cuts like “Christiansands” and “Tricky Kid.”
And why not? “Christiansands” and “Tricky Kid” are two of the best songs on the new album: the beats are funky, the riffs catchy, the vocals, samples, and keyboards tense and haunting. Tellingly, both tracks also owe a musical and conceptual debt to, of all bands, the Presidents of the United States of America. Those old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll clowns inspired Tricky to try some old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll guitar, and gave him the line in “Tricky Kid” about being “naked and famous” (a song title on the Presidents’ 1995 debut). The source is decidedly un-trip-hop, but it goes to show that Tricky still sounds best when he’s grafting his disaffection to a current sound.
Tricky’s will to re-create himself anew every time out is laudable, and to some degree a necessary attribute in any artist. But the only way to achieve that is not to escape the here and now but to inhabit it in some unexpected way. If his failures prove that he’s not nearly as close to God as he and his bedazzled admirers would like to believe, in a different way so do his successes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lawrence Passera/ album cover.