|SO, YA WANNA know Tricky's
business, kid? Well listen up close. Rapping like he means to, riding a
dogged beat that never wanders, 28-year-old Brit enigma Adrian "Tricky"
Thaws practically gets in your face on his new album Pre- Millennium
Tension: "I tell you everything / I tell you lies / Look deep
Into my mongrel eyes," he spits, his voice growly and garbled, on the themelike
"Tricky Kid". It's a devilishly startling call-out, which he folows up
by faux-boasting, "Everybody wants to be just like me / I'm naked and I'm
famous." Here, in a snap, is the bitterly amused MC performance piece that
Prince has been failing to finesse since the late-'80s. Inspired rather
than threatened by hip-hop, Tricky tosses it off like a Stüissy cape.
Deceptive by definition, a wispy emissary from history's mystery, Tricky structured his debut Maxinquaye as an argument for stuttering refusal - a noirish, beat-down soundtrack where shades of light spoke more eloquently than dialogue. It was an account of language, both musical and lyrical, breaking apart, then sputtering back together. Its dusted genius was in eroticizing despair until It seemed like the only place where truly liberating possibilities could be conceived. Still, Tricky himself hid in the shadows, less a dub producer than the dub itself, fading in and out, meaning the most when he wasn't there. Putting words in other's mouths - mostly chanteuse / sometime girlfriend Martine Topley-Bird - he sat back and read between the lines like the rest of us, trying to refigure his dilemma.
Nearly God, the recent collaboration with a variety of vocalists (Terry Hall, Neneh Cherry, Björk), was a sly diversion, an essential reworking disguised as a side project. With tracks stripped down to R&B skeletons rattling in a closet, the lyrics began to reveal more of a curious swagger. In his own odd way, Tricky was cracking his shell. And on the crafty, overlooked Tricky Presents: Grassroots EP, recorded with New York MCs and vocalists, he identified explicitly with his life as a scuffling, motherless B-boy. For Tricky, hip-hop is his vital voice because it absorbs and subverts R&B yearning, while redeeming punk disillusion and anything else (movie soundtracks, ambient techno) that strays into the funk. Like many kids his age, hip-hop opened up his head, and forever changed the way he thought about music and Identity. It gave him an artistic belief that the world was his for the taking, whether he was a proper musician or not. It positively asserted his blackness, a factor white Brit rave aesthetes always underplay.
That said, Tricky's mongrelizing of hip-hop may send hard-head purists into a millennial tizzy. For one thing, his lyrics
|aren't exactly paeans to male
authority. In fact, masculinity is still up for grabs and open to wild
interpretation. And while his persona is less diffident than in the past,
it's by no means a black-and-white proposition. Unlike so many rappers,
Tricky rarely plays the blame game; he's too heartsick. For him, society's
not an enemy conspirator but an ambivalent lover who never understands
"The older I get the more confused I am," he confesses on "Sex Drive."
As usual, the new album's soundscapes are cryptically bugged. Keyboards and wind instruments blow in and out of songs, like windows were intentionally left open. Harmonicas murmur and bass lines scoot in arbitrary circles. Guitar scuzz drops from the ceiling. Drumbeats tap out arcane Morse code. Midway through, there's the droning patois of "Ghetto Youth" (Linton "Queasy" Johnson?), a setup for a series of disturbing internal monologues, in which Tricky raps like a choked-up, self - doubting cleric. From "My Evil Is Strong": "Even got God scared / Men and the things we did / Making children strong enough to take a life / Are you strong enough to take care of one?" A dizzying cover of Eric B. & Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury" (the original was already eccentric - back-masked flute sample, echoing drums) might've been a brief tension-release, but Martine's intimate bedside reading upsets the trippy power of Rakim's "furified freestyIe." Tricky loves hip-hop's force its in admitable ability to scratch against the silence, but he can't tmst it completely.
At his most compelling, Tricky calls
everything into question, including himself
(like Basehead's Michael Ivey, he's a
cranky griot, sick of knowing secrets that
only keep him stuck on the outskirts). On
"Makes Me Wanna Die," a tender, time-lapse guitar klickers, while Martine sings over his alienated body: "You're insignificant / A small piece / An Ism / No more no less." But instead of luxuriating in doomed string sections, now steps to the mike in full rasp. On the inscrutable"Christiansands" he's not just rearranging the dominant language, he's struggling to create his own. As the album metronomes to a close with the obliquely poetic "Piano," his rap gets breathless: "To the freedom / Make it ring / Make it sing I Make it dance / Not a chance." Tricky's refusal to concede anything, especially a definition of freedom that doesn't consider the scarred backs on which that freedom was written, is stunning. And his music, a collage of gasping beats and forlorn chords, speaks beyond words. He may be stressed, but he's working every frayed nerve.