The beat that initially gave birth to hip-hop was a subway train rumbling through the South Bronx: sturdy, inexorable and powerful enough to move loads of people with urgent efficiency. It took fifteen years for that beat to settle down enough to become an entirely different sort of conveyance. In the hands of artist/producer Tricky — the Bristol-born sound-system veteran of the legendary Wild Bunch and a contributor to Massive Attack — it becomes a pulsing heartbeat gently impelling a thick-pile carpet ride slowly through inner dreamscapes. Although rooted in some of the sounds and concepts of contemporary hip-hop, Tricky is an ingenious escape artist, and nothing about Maxinquaye is bound by convention. Generously sharing the mic with one Martine (as well as several other vocalists), he sets the controls for the heart of the mind, sublimating rhythms into the intricate atmospheric textures of such relaxed, trippy inventions as “Aftermath,” “Strugglin’,” “Hell Is Around the Corner,” the hallucinatory “Feed Me” and the jazzy, Björk-like “Pumpkin.” But lest he be mistaken for low-key groovers like P.M. Dawn or the rap pretensions of high-style acid jazzers, Tricky unloads a massive rock guitar attack in his drastic reconfiguration of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” makes like Marvin Gaye in the soulful dirt of “Abbaon Fat Track” and cranks up a bumping distorted club groove for “Brand New You’re Retro.” Fun facts: “Pumpkins” employs a Smashing Pumpkins drum sample, and the small list of session players includes guitarist James Stevenson (ex-Generation X) and bassist Pete Briquette (ex-Boomtown Rats).
Demonstrating a degree of activity to match his fervid stylistic imagination, Tricky greeted the summer of ’96 with a pair of confusingly billed releases. Tricky Presents Grassroots is a collaborative EP on which he digs diverse, mostly soulful grooves with singers Laveda Davis, Stephanie Cook and Roberto Malary Jr. and slides his own enervated version of hip-hop beats under a lame rap group called Hillfiguzes. The eclectic, meandering and deeply uneven Nearly God, billed to an entity of the same name, also involves plenty of outsiders (including Björk, Alison Moyet, Terry Hall, Neneh Cherry), all of whom allow their individuality to become part of Tricky’s increasingly Prince-like visions.