Here comes a Nazarene ... looks good in a magazine

On "Juxtapose," the Bristol MC negotiates the tension between B-boy roots and raw, tender soul.


Michelle Goldberg
August 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

On "Black Steel," the brilliant, agitated Public Enemy cover on Tricky's 1995 debut album, "Maxinquaye," the MC and producer took all the insurrectionary bravado of the original and turned it inward, against himself. If Public Enemy's version was the sound of a street warrior ready to strut into battle, Tricky's was that of a persecuted paranoiac curled in a corner. "Cold sweat as I dwell on myself/How long has it been?/They've got me sitting in a state pen," his collaborator Martina crooned with the voice of a cockney Billie Holiday. Public Enemy's original emphasized escape -- "I contemplated a plan on the cell floor ... I got a raw deal, so I'm looking for the steel." Tricky's version garbled and understated the way out; it was less a possibility than a defensive delusion.

With "Black Steel" and "Maxinquaye" Tricky bridged a yawning gap between post-punk indie rock's self-abasing angst and hip-hop's ego-fortifying braggadocio. The combination of slinky film noir atmosphere and dub effects and the interplay between male and female voices infused electronic music with the melancholic, sublimated passion of the Velvet Underground. Tricky, like Elvis and countless others before him, was finding a new way to meld white and black music. He collaborated with both Polly Jean Harvey and Wu-Tang's RZA. He turned the classic Eric B. and Rakim song "Lyrics of Fury" into an anxious dirge. And, just as bands like Joy Division took the scathing nihilism of punk and turned it inward, Tricky internalized rap's rage: Instead of attacking or dismantling the oppressive world around him, he took himself apart.

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"Juxtapose" is Tricky's most accessible album since "Maxinquaye," largely because he seems to have left most of the beats to DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and DMX producer Grease. The result is that the booming, undulating bass is as regular as a heartbeat on "For Real" and the salacious "I Like the Girls," making them more structured, if less innovative, than those on "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1998). If Tricky's touch is elusive on some of the underlying soundscapes -- many of which shriek with unexpected electric guitars -- vocally he's more present than ever, alternating a furiously fast, perfectly syncopated raggae-inflected rap with his signature scratchy hiss. Martina, once Tricky's voice and muse, is absent here, and her sweet voice is sorely missed -- although the diva singing her heart out on "Call Me" is a credible replacement (Kioka, the shrill Alanis Morissette soundalike on "Hot Like a Sauna," is certainly not).

What's most fascinating about "Juxtapose" is the way Tricky negotiates the tension between his B-boy roots and his raw, tender soul. Mining the fear underlying hip-hop's bravado, Tricky prefigured both jungle's dark vision of urban entropy and Eminem's homicidal/suicidal psychodramas. Here, he spits out lines about Tek-9s and slips NWA's infamous "fuck tha police" into "Hot Like a Sauna." He gives us a lyrical wet dream in the porno lesbian fantasy "I Like the Girls," animated by the same kind of comic-book hypervirility that Limp Bizkit use to whip their fans into a pillaging froth. But just as one suspects that he's finally bought into the ugly macho bullshit that dominates his industry, he turns himself inside out and exposes his flayed heart on the eerie "Contradictive" and the gorgeous "Call Me" and "Wash My Soul." If "Juxtapose" occasionally shows the British Tricky emulating his stateside peers, he still hasn't escaped his own claustrophobia. He reserves most of his venom for himself, and he radiates a spine-tingling yearning, a bittersweet incandescent beauty unique to pop music.

The term "trip-hop" may be exhausted, but the budding genre thrilled writers for a reason -- it was electronic music with lyrics as deep as its beats. By making music grounded in rap and reggae but suffused with existential unease, Tricky helped make hip-hop and electronic music comprehensible to white critics familiar with scathing sarcasm, heartbreak and self-loathing. At the same time, he brought to hip-hop a genius for the spooky blunted beatscapes that have come to dominate the urban airwaves. (See Missy Elliott collaborator Timbaland, who took Tricky's skittering, dubbed-out percussion, simplified and polished it and rocketed it into the mainstream.)

Just as Tricky's sampledelic tapestries helped make indie rock's droning guitar formulas sound obsolete, his and Martina's gender swapping -- both lyrically and sartorially -- upended all of hip-hop's tired machismo and the dully smug, cheerful stereotypes of the club and rave scenes. In the liner notes for "Maxinquaye," Tricky is photographed in a wedding dress, his mouth smeared with red lipstick. Martina's in a tux. But it's in the music that you really feel a charge of perverse transgression. When Martina sweetly sings, "I'll fuck you in the ass/Just for a laugh/With the quick speed/I'll make your nose bleed," on "Abbon Fat Track," it cuts to the dangerous heart of sexual callousness and confusion, something that's everywhere, especially in nightlife, but explored only shallowly in electronic music.

The angst that sets Tricky apart from the hip-hop and techno mainstream is most evident in his songs about fame, a subject he returns to again and again, and one he addresses more profoundly than nearly anyone else in pop music. Hip-hop has generally had two attitudes toward fame. Musicians either revel in it, or, if they're progressive, they chide those who are obsessed with it, situating themselves above such petty concerns, as Lauryn Hill does on "Superstar." But Tricky's attitude toward the wealth and adulation he's received has always been distrustful to the point of paranoia, a fear that's only strengthened by his acknowledgement of how tempting celebrity is.

This attitude was always with Tricky, from the bitter denunciation of trend-mongers on "Maxinquaye's" "Brand New You're Retro" and the ironically titled LP that followed, "Nearly God." But the theme built in intensity as critics anointed Tricky as pop music's king and savior (before, of course, the inevitable backlash). A scathing rant that coasts along on a delicious reggae groove, "Tricky Kid," off "Pre-Millennium Tension," comes close to indulging in the kind of self-satisfied boasting so familiar in hip-hop, "They used to call me Tricky Kid/I live the life they wish they did/I live the life, don't own a car/And now the they call me superstar." But Tricky, with his inimitable sneer, turns this old rap trope into a scathing indictment, mocking his momentary deification, almost spitting the line "Here comes a Nazarene/Looks good in a magazine."

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Tricky's dark fascination with his own stardom has become more and more pronounced as his career has progressed, with songs like "Analyze Me," "Money Greedy" and the bluntly titled "Record Companies" on "Angels With Dirty Faces" and "For Real" on "Juxtapose." Artists as diverse as Bobby Brown and Ani DiFranco have turned their fame into material, but usually such music seems hopelessly solipsistic -- how can most listeners relate to the pain of being too successful, of receiving too much attention? With Tricky, though, such songs truly seem like dispatches from someone descending into the maelstrom to report that the pop culture dream is really a nightmare. He's obsessed with his record deal not because of the validation it brings, but because of how tenuous it is. "Some people have to live their lives for real/I don't have to, I've got a record deal," he sings on the smooth, lulling "For Real," the opener on "Juxtapose." He makes it clear that he doesn't expect this escape to last, though -- nor does he feel deserving of it. "When the record company drops me, that's when I learn/It's not real/It's just passing time/It's not real/All I do is rhyme."

If the recounting of misfortunes in hip-hop has often been about proving street cred by showing off battle scars, Tricky's blunt honesty has always seemed more like tearing open a festering wound, Morrisey-style. Take the haunting "Analyze Me" off "Angels With Dirty Faces," on which Tricky unnerves by his self-revelation. "For all those who want to analyze me, my mother committed suicide when I was 4 or 5," he tells us in a desiccated whisper. That naked appraisal of psychic desperation continues on "Juxtapose." "Scrappy Love" is a seething, bleak song to an ex-girlfriend in which Tricky, accompanied by funereal percussion and a plaintive piano, seems to acknowledge that his former lover is better off without him. A sorrowful lament for his own romantic failure, it's all hard heartbreak and introspective fatalism. The somnolent beats, loops and washes coalesce into a beautiful whole, but Tricky's shattered soul never does. His talent is fusing the rich vibe and intricate structures of hip-hop and reggae, music dedicated to presenting a strong front in the face of a world falling apart, with anguished lyrics about the terror of falling apart in front of the world.


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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