Happy 20th Anniversary to Trickys debut album Maxinquaye, originally released February 20, 1995.
In the summer of 1998, I travelled to and fell madly in love with England for the first time. While I spent most of my time discovering as much of London as I could in an all-too-short weeks time, I also had the pleasure of roadtripping it to a handful of lovely towns beyond the capital. Bath, Brighton, and York were some of the more memorable cities I visited, and I even made it up to Edinburgh, Scotland, which I enjoyed very much. And while each of these places satisfied whatever touristy urges I was feeling at the time, one town I visited had particularly special appeal for me: Bristol.
Located roughly 120 miles due west of London, Bristol is a historically vital, economically prosperous seaport with an ethnically diverse population north of 400,000, making it Englands sixth largest city. More importantly, for me, Bristol is the creative and spiritual birthplace of one of the most thrilling music movements of the past 25 years: trip-hop. At the risk of genre oversimplification, trip-hop represents the musical style that developed in the early-to-mid 1990s, predicated upon the confluence of electronic, hip-hop, dub, bass, R&B, funk and jazz music, among other sonic inspirations. Trip-hop attained both critical and commercial success globally, due in large part to the dynamic trio of Bristol-bred artists that originally developed the aptly-named Bristol Sound: Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. And the subject of todays post is the latter.
In the mid 1980s, aspiring rapper Adrian Tricky Thaws joined the now-legendary Bristol sound system collective The Wild Bunch, who would later morph into Massive Attack. Trickys association with the group would serve as his career launching pad, as they featured his signature raspy vocals and haunting lyrics on the title track of their landmark 1991 debut album Blue Lines, as well as two songs Karmacoma and Eurochild from their 1994 follow-up LP Protection. No longer content to perform as a secondary contributor within someone elses spotlight, Tricky ultimately abandoned his collaborative work with Massive Attack to devote his creative restlessness and passions toward crafting his debut solo album.
Maxinquaye a homage in name to Trickys late mother Maxine Quaye more than delivered upon the promise that had been manifest in his previous supporting roles, and heralded the proper arrival of a wickedly talented voice and musical visionary. A gritty, intoxicating, and inventive head-rush of an album, the Mercury Prize-nominated Maxinquaye confirms that Trickys musical imagination is more vivid than the vast majority of artists working today. While it is primarily indebted to hip-hop, the album blends multiple styles including ambient, dub, reggae, and rock, making it damn near impossible to pigeonhole, and thankfully so. The twelve songs are dominated by atmospheric, chilled-out fare that sound like the most beautifully dark and twisted lullabies youll ever dream of hearing. And a few propulsive, beat-driven compositions are incorporated throughout to ensure a more balanced, monotony-free listening experience, overall.
What ultimately makes Maxinquaye so unforgettable is that it is an album of marked contrasts that play off of each other to extraordinary effect. The most striking example of this is the intriguing juxtaposition of featured vocalist Martina Topley-Birds freshly alluring voice with Trickys substantially less polished, unabashedly raw wordplay. In theory, the combination of such antithetical vocal styles shouldnt engender such an enchanting sound. But it most certainly does here. Presumably well aware of the vocal gold he had to work with in recording the album, Tricky actually defers much of the spotlight to Topley-Bird, whose not-so-secret weapon of a voice features on the majority of the songs and very nearly steals the show, single-handedly. And though she contributes to just one song (Pumpkin,), Alison Goldfrapp also thoroughly dominates the proceeding with her vocal prowess, which would find universal acclaim in its own right five years later with the release of Goldfrapps debut LP Felt Mountain.
In addition to its seemingly incongruous vocal pairings, Maxinquayes duality is further manifested in its sonic inspirations. It sounds very much like a futuristic record, and remarkably so, considering that it borrows so heavily from the classic soul and hip-hop that predates it. Samples abound throughout the album, most notably on Brand New Youre Retro (Michael Jacksons Bad), Aftermath (Marvin Gayes Thats the Way Love Is), Feed Me (KRS-Ones Sound of Da Police), and Hell is Around the Corner (Isaac Hayes Ikes Rap II, which was also lifted by Portishead on their Glory Box single). The key to making this dichotomy between old and new work so effectively is Trickys commitment to constructing these songs as distinctively original compositions, as opposed to the lazily recycled rehashes of already-proven songs that producers of lesser ambition often lean on. Black Steel, a cover of Public Enemys classic prison-break anthem Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, is the prime example of Trickys originality. Aside from staying true to Chuck Ds lyrics (sung by Topley-Bird here), the songs mix of propulsive drums and guitars sounds nothing like PEs version, further affirming the albums pure ingenuity.
Tricky has recorded nine albums since Maxinquaye, and with each subsequent recording, he has gradually abandoned the more subdued approach of his debut, in favor of more rugged, harder-hitting sounds. So Maxinquaye represents a bit of an anomaly and a brilliant one when considering his catalog as a whole. Its a fantastic record that requires repeated, focused listens (headphones highly recommended) to fully understand and appreciate its genius. Along with Massive Attacks Blue Lines and Portisheads Dummy, Maxinquaye completes the triumvirate of quintessential trip-hop records, which collectively define the Bristol Sound that many would attempt and fail to replicate time and time again.
My Favorite Song: Aftermath
“Black Steel” (1995)
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