The music critic Andy Pemberton coined the term “trip-hop” to describe an early DJ Shadow single, but I have this pet theory that the term caught on because nobody knew what the fuck else to do with Tricky. Smash-crash genre-blurring seemed like a revolutionary thing in the ’90s, in that moment before the internet made it clear that everyone could and would listen to everything. Beck and Cibo Matto and the mid-’90s Beastie Boys and the Orange-era Jon Spencer Blues Explosion all made great music, but they had the power of novelty working for them. Tricky’s Bristol forebears Massive Attack and Portishead did, too. It was fun to think that, in this dank little British city, people were finding ways to mash rap and dub reggae and Sade and Bond themes and Dusty Springfield torch songs into one dizzy, staggering whole. But there wasn’t anything fun about Tricky, and there didn’t seem to be anything calculated about his fusions. It might seem like an attention-grabbing move to cover Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” as a damaged postpunk dirge, with a sultry woman whisper-crooning where Chuck D had boomed. If someone did it now, it would feel like transparent blog-bait. But Tricky did it without letting the seams show. From him, it felt like one more thing that had bubbled up from a fertile subconscious. And Maxinquaye, Tricky’s first album, released 20 years ago tomorrow, remains Tricky’s defining work because it’s the purest dive into that brain. Later, pigeonholing and expectations and the term “trip-hop” would come in and change everything. On Maxinquaye, he was all flickering possibility.
Tricky’s mystique is a good place to start, because that mystique echoes through the music in all sorts of interesting ways. He was a mixed-race wraith who’d grown up in a white Bristol ghetto and spent time in prison. He wore dresses and smeared makeup. Onstage, he looked like a being of pure sinew, and he’d do whole shows without looking at the audience. His was the heaviest, darkest voice on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, an album full of heavy and dark voices. His delivery was a desiccated, ragged croak; that was him rapping about trying to get a Visa card on “Five-Man Army.” Judged on straightforward rap merits, he was pretty wack, and he wasn’t exactly a prolific writer. (Two of his verses from Massive Attack’s Protection reappear word-for-word on Maxinquaye.) But it wasn’t what Tricky was saying that mattered; it was the way he used his voice — murmuring and rasping and slithering and insinuating, like Satan talking you into selling your soul. And anyway, the things he said were so slathered with ambiguity that they seemed to radiate mystery and meaning: “Reduce me, seduce me, dress me up in Stussy.” He met Martina Topley-Bird, the singer whose soft and intimate warble gave Maxinquaye much of its power, when she was 15. She was still a teenager, and the mother of Tricky’s kid, by the time Maxinquaye came out.
Topley-Bird really deserves nearly as much credit as Tricky for how powerful Maxinquaye turned out. She has all the most shivery and evocative moments, like the “I think ahead of you / I think instead of you” bit on “Suffocated Love.” For entire songs, she reduces Tricky to a mere hypeman, albeit the type of hypeman who mumbles and stares at his shoes. But then, mumbling and staring at your feet are sort of the point of Maxinquaye. It’s an album of deep sadness and creeping dread. Tricky worked with samples and live musicians, and you can’t always tell who did what, though nobody ever found a better use for Isaac Hayes’ tingling oft-sampled “Ike’s Rap II” than Tricky on “Hell Is Round The Corner.” Tricky recruited co-producer Mark Saunders because he’s worked with the Cure, which is almost too perfect. And the album’s suffocating atmosphere has a lot more to do with the Cure’s luxuriant gloom than it does with any rap music that’s ever been made, before or since. When samples come in, they’re often stretched out, time-shifted until they become otherworldly moans and death-rattles. Tricky doesn’t quite maintain that mood for the whole album; it’s a bit jarring when he starts rapping about fake motherfuckers over Michael Jackson’s “Bad” bassline on “Brand New You’re Retro” or when he just lets his sound devolve into arrhythmic chaos on “Strugglin.'” For most of its hour, though, Maxinquaye is pure apocalyptic mood piece. There’s a great anecdote that George Clinton told Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel to think about his mother dying before he recorded the soul-wrecking guitar solo “Maggot Brain.” Well, Tricky’s mother did die. She committed suicide when he was four, and he named Maxinquaye after her. Maxinquaye sounded like the work of someone who was never going to get over that and who’d given up on trying.
For a few years after Maxinquaye, Tricky really did seem like the future. He dated Björk, which seemed perfect and which maybe would’ve been if Tricky hadn’t been an asshole boyfriend, something he later owned up to being. (If anything like the Tricky/Björk/Goldie love triangle happened today, it would absolutely set the internet on fire.) He played a villainous henchman who gets blown to pieces in Luke Besson’s The Fifth Element. He made a record with the RZA. The Scottish reggae-pop singer Finley Quaye got to have a career for a little while there, mostly because he made up an apparently-false story about being Tricky’s uncle. But trip-hop, as it morphed into vaguely hip boutique music, would turn out to have little use for an artist as bleak and messy as Tricky. Portishead and Massive Attack at least held onto their audiences. Tricky, wary of labels and distrustful of his own hype, made music that was increasingly heavy and paranoid. He made one or two more great records. (1996’s Pre-Millennial Tension is a gimme, but I’ll also go to bat for 1998’s Angels With Dirty Faces.) But he wasn’t interested in holding onto the vibe he’d conjured on Maxinquaye, and before too long, he was making records with the guy from Live. For a long time, his greatest legacy was that he was the type of artist who’d name you’d drop on dates if you wanted to appear both deep and horny. (Its entirely possible that no artist showed up in more Nerve.com profiles.) But the idea that a person could have all these genres of music within him, that he’d pull out whatever needed to convey the necessary sadness, is something that you can trace through Maxinquaye to something like Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. And I’m fairly certain that FKA twigs learned a few things about how to convey streetwise ambiguity from Tricky. A revival of that early, messy strain of trip-hop could come along at any second. Meanwhile, Tricky is still out there, still making records, still refusing to acknowledge anyone else’s expectations. He remains among us.