This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Classics Critiqued – May 2012 – Tricky – “Maxinquaye” (Island Records, 1995)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued comes from an artist who often divides opinion and has admitted that since the release of the seminal “Maxinquaye” he has tried to “kill all that Maxinquaye bullshit”. In this article I will explore not only the album’s sound, but also the main points of discourse surrounding it. Including its perception as “a coffee-table album”, the switching of gender roles employed on the album, the music’s dissonance and of course whether it deserves its classic status.

The story of “Maxinquaye” starts many years beforehand in 1990 when Tricky was working with Bristol trip-hop innovators Massive Attack under the name Tricky Kid. He featured on their début single ‘Daydreaming’, the first time anyone heard of a half whispered, half rapped vocal style. Tricky would contribute to a majority of the tracks on Massive Attack’s landmark début album “Blue Lines” (1991) and the follow-up “Protection” (1994) before “Maxinquaye” would see the light of day. Tricky had offered his debut single “Aftermath” to Massive Attack for inclusion on “Blue Lines” but the trio weren’t interested in “its hollowed-out hip-hop blues”. ‘Aftermath’ lay untouched for two years before Tricky’s cousin encouraged him to get his own record deal, this came surprisingly quickly with Island Records signing Tricky in 1994 after gaining their attention through a self released white label of ‘Aftermath’. Suddenly Tricky had an album to produce and no knowledge or skills to make it with, as ‘Aftermath’ had been produced by Mark Stewart (ex-The Pop Group singer & On-U Sound alumni).

Island hired Mark Saunders as a sound engineer for the album’s recording sessions which began in Tricky’s home studio in a time when this mostly unheard of. In a 2007 interview, Saunders describes the unorthodox approach that Tricky took to creating “Maxinquaye”, “We basically made a record out of different bits; the spare parts of other people’s records… every track was built around a bit of somebody else’s track, or a combination of quite a few, and so the traditional method of starting by programming drums didn’t apply”. The floor would be littered with records which Tricky would pick up and hand to Saunders for sampling and the tracks would be a result of the disparate elements being pitched down and edited until they made some sort of musical sense or Tricky was happy with the track.

It was also unclear early on what contribution Tricky’s ex-girlfriend and vocalist Martina Topley-Bird would be making to the record as she’d become a central part of it. Saunders recalls that Tricky was no more orthodox with his use of Topley-Bird “She would come into the studio, murmur, ‘Hi,’ and he would hand her the lyrics that he’d just scribbled out and say, ‘Go and sing it’.” There was no preparation and no notation, Topley-Bird came up with her “hair standing up on the back of your neck” melodies on the spot”. The next stage was the addition of parts by musicians James Stevenson (guitar), Pete Briquette (bass) and techno-rock band FTV who featured on ‘Black Steel’, a cover of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. Saunders also contributed guitar parts and edited keyboards that Tricky improvised into the tracks.

When the album came out in February 1995 with very little radio play it shot to No.2 on the album chart and was hugely critically acclaimed, garnering rave reviews and featuring in many end of year polls on both sides of the Atlantic. Tricky had commercially and critically arrived but he hadn’t wanted to and wasn’t interested in fame and success, as he stated in a recent interview with The Guardian, “I thought I’d be an underground artist, I had no idea it was going to do that and I was not ready for it.” In his opinion success ruined “Maxinquaye” and turned it into “a coffee-table album”, which has annoyed him since. It some ways it’s easy to understand why the album has fallen victim to this as on the surface it’s a smooth, smoky and jazzy album that lopes along at a crawl for most of its duration, the perfect soundtrack for the dinner party set. However, it’s what’s under that surface that gives the album its vital edge, the spiky guitar riffs, reverse effects, lo-fi sample and paranoid vibe that critics loved at the time and at present. This is why Tricky despairs, his vision wasn’t to create a companion piece to “Blues Lines” but to make the other side of its smooth, seductive coin. He wanted to step out of their shadow.

One of most interesting facets of “Maxinquaye” is the switching of gender roles that runs through the album and is especially pronounced on ‘Black Steel’ when Martina Topley-Bird sings “I’m a black man”. Tricky wanted her to sing on the majority of the songs as he saw his lyrics as “my mum speaking through me; a lot of my lyrics are written from a woman’s point of view”. Most of the tracks have a soft and supple sound that’s very feminine for music written by a man and for what’s essentially a hip-hop record. This makes a unique proposition even today.

So now for the biggest question is “Maxinquaye” a classic album? The answer is yes and no. There are many things to admire in this ambitious and singular album: its sonic adventurousness to its lyrical challenges of sex and gender roles. However, 17 years on from its original release the album feels to me to be an album to admire and analyse not one you instantly feel an emotional connection to or recognise as an out-and-out classic. On the other hand how many people were able to get their head around “OK Computer” the first time they played it? With that in mind please let me know your thoughts on “Maxinquaye” in the comments below or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Maxinquaye” here.