Tricky - Maxinquaye
Whatever happened to trip-hop? For a few years, in the mid-nineties, it was the epitome of cool, mixing downbeat hip-hop with sinister cinematic sounds, and often pained female vocals instead of rapping. Then Portishead took ages to follow up their debut album, Dummy, DJ Shadow maintained he wasn’t trip hop, Massive Attack seemingly disbanded after the rock-influenced Mezzanine, and Tricky - some would say - crawled up his own arse.
But before he crawled up his own arse, Tricky recorded Maxinquaye, one of those rare albums that manages to sound unique without pushing away the listener (assuming the listener is reasonably open-minded, that is). At the time of release, I admittedly preferred Dummy, although, to be fair, these records don’t have much in common, bar one shared sample (from Ike’s Rap II; used by Tricky on Hell is Round the Corner, by Portishead on Glory Box), despite both being placed under the trip-hop banner. On digging out Maxinquaye again recently, I was amazed at just how dense and complex an album it is. By contrast, Dummy now sounds a relatively shallow affair, more style than substance.
It makes some sense that the record is named after Tricky’s mother, who committed suicide when he was a child. Could this be the inspiration behind Aftermath, with its “Let me tell you about my mother” sample (from Bladerunner)? Who knows? Some of his vocals on this track - those that can be made out - almost sound like prayer in tone: “too many things I need to tell you, things you need to hear”. It’s just one part of what makes Maxinquaye so fascinating.
Consider also how, on many tracks, Tricky’s raspy mumbling occurs under Martine’s exotic vocals, both often repeating the same lyrics. It’s a strange effect, especially when it comes to lines like “I fuck you in the ass, just for a laugh/ with the quick speed I’ll make your nose bleed”. The blurring of gender, playing with assumptions, is presumably deliberate, even spilling on to the sleeve; Tricky dressed as bride, Martine as groom. A psychologist could have a field day.
Otherwise the lyrics suggest relationship doubts, heavy weed use (if you listen carefully, you might even hear Tricky taking a draw on Ponderosa) and the questioning of one’s sanity. The all-too-short bites provided on the sleeve make interesting reading.
Unlike some of his later work, Maxinquaye feels complete. These are mainly songs, as opposed to just ‘tracks’. Sonically, the album straddles many genres (from hip-hop to reggae to rock) and maintains interest over its hour long running time. Consider the percussion on Ponderosa, beautifully described by Select magazine as “beaten out on a(n)... instrument constructed from the skulls of demented dwarves”; or, despite its repetitive lyrics, the way Black Steel remains mesmerising over six minutes through dizzying changes in synchronisation and vocal delivery, all the time becoming increasingly frenzied, until you figure Martine should be out of breath by the end; or the swishing noises on the otherwise benign, Alison Goldfrapp-sung Pumpkin, ultimately sounding like a scythe blade cutting feathers; or the way Brand New You’re Retro begins with what seems like a clear sample from Michael Jackson’s Bad, only to fuck with it royally; or the way Strugglin’ (the sparsest track here) is punctuated with what sounds like a gun being loaded and ends with Tricky’s Mutley chuckle, as he concludes “they label me insane... I think I’m more normal than most”.
Maxinquaye is an intense experience. To trip-hop’s steals, evocative arrangements and lush vocals, it adds possibly very personal lyrics to puzzle over. Everything about it (yes, right down to the sleeve) suggests Tricky as a unique artist. Thankfully, before the half-formed Nearly God project, he made some concessions towards his audience.