Tricky’s debut album is an intoxicating listen possessed by a rare, wicked beauty.
Mike Diver 2011-07-22
Bristol rapper Adrian Thaws, aka Tricky (once he’d dropped the cumbersome "Kid" from his moniker), was hardly an unknown force when he released this debut album in early 1995. His whispered, husky vocals had appeared on Massive Attack’s 1991 disc Blue Lines, and he featured again on the trio’s next LP, 94’s Protection. Maxinquaye, though, was something else. It’s hard to imagine how he could have stepped out of Massive Attack’s shadow in a more dramatic fashion.
Named after the artist’s late mother, Maxinquaye is a (quite deliberately) suffocating delight of oily beats and murky atmospherics, bruised lyricism and crafty samples. Tricky relishes his frontman role, that much is clear from a venomous turn on Brand New You’re Retro (which lifts from Michael Jackson’s Bad) and the man’s captivating performance on Hell Is Round the Corner, which rides the same Isaac Hayes sample as Portishead’s Glory Box (which was released as a single just weeks before Maxinquaye hit shelves). But he’s not quite flying solo here, as his then-girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird steals the spotlight on a series of numbers. And it’s the collision of these vocal styles – one croaky and smoky, one silky smooth but able to bear teeth when called upon – that drives this album to the classic status it today enjoys.
And rightly so, too. Trip hop had reached its creative zenith in the mid-90s, and it was Portishead’s Dummy and this collection that gave the sub-genre its twin pillars of demonstrable brilliance. (The next contender would not appear until 1998, in the shape of Massive Attack’s awesomely claustrophobic Mezzanine.) But while Dummy was an unlikely hit with the coffee table set, Maxinquaye’s oppressive production and oblique lyrics ensured it bypassed cocktail party playlists. It was – it is – intoxicatingly deep, with too many moments of malevolence-meets-melancholy magic to summarise in just a handful of paragraphs. And if that sounds like a cop-out, it partially is: returning to this album is like meeting an ex-lover you last saw a lifetime ago. You want to hold onto the memories, not scatter them amongst the detritus of the present day. Because these songs are possessed by a wicked beauty rarely glimpsed since, in the work of Tricky or any other artist; a beauty intrinsically tied to time and place.
Maxinquaye was both Melody Maker’s and NME’s album of the year in 1995. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize in the same year (losing out to Dummy). Magazines Q, Rolling Stone, Spin and Village Voice scored it incredibly highly. It has a five-star rating at AllMusic.com. So while it’s far from the easiest of listens, even so long after its release, this set is as essential to any record collection as Pet Sounds, Purple Rain and Paul’s Boutique. Believe the critical consensus, as in this instance it’s entirely accurate.