In this article, I want to list four innovations that make Tricky's two decades of work distinct and admirable. Tricky—the street name for Adrian Thaws, a Bristol-born rapper, pro- grammer, and producer—is one of the main figures of the triphop movement that surged in the early 1990s and receded in the early 2000s. Though the level of his fame is now nowhere near where it used to be in 1995, Tricky never really cracked the mainstream of American popular culture. His most celebrated album, Maxinquaye, only sold 70,000 copies in the U.S., and his name has far more currency among music critics than music consumers. That is basically Tricky—now for the list of innovations.
To begin with, during his moment with Massive Attack (roughly between 1988 and 1994), Tricky and his rapping partner Mushroom solved one of the biggest problems confronting UK MCs at the time: Should they rhyme with a British or an American accent? The Demon Boyz, regulars on Tim Westwood's rap show on Radio 1, and Rebel MC had one solution: to rap with Jamaican accents. But Brit hiphoppers like Derek B and Monie Love had another solution: to rap with American accents. Both these solutions were not, however, as convincing as the Tricky/Mushroom solution: to rap with whispered British accents. This approach avoided the problem of sounding like they were running to the safety or certainty of black-Caribbean English (which had its own tradition of rapping—toasting) or simply mimicking black-American English. It instead preserved the authenticity of a UK accent, but made it menacing and streetwise, like two suspicious-looking blokes on a corner scheming out of earshot of the law.
Tricky's second innovation was to produce two successful covers of rap tunes, Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" (Maxinquaye) and Eric B. and Rakim's "Lyrics of Fury" (Pre-Millennium Tension). Before Tricky, the very idea of covering a rap song seemed ridiculous for several reasons. To begin with, a rap track is by its nature an expression of selfhood: It's all about the rapper's experience, his place in the world, his private concerns and lifelong beliefs. A rapper lacks the universality of a singer. We can easily imagine almost anyone in the world singing "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," or even "On a Plain," but how in the world do you cover "Have a Nice Day" or "Triumph"? Tricky not only overcame this enormous obstacle (the raw individualism of rap), but brought new life and meaning to "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" and new energy and aggression to "Lyrics of Fury" via his triphop versions. Ultimately, Tricky grasped the individualism of the tracks and universalized it—it was not just about "getting a letter from the government" but rebellion against state control and oppression, not just about writing furious rhymes but the state of urban anger itself.
His third innovation was to make beautiful voices say the most strange and violent things without losing their beauty or attraction. "I'll fuck you in the ass/Just for a laugh/With the quick speed/I'll make your nose bleed," sings Martina Topley Bird on the hypnotic "Abbaon Fat Tracks"; "Is there cancer in the throat?/No stress/Maybe it's supposed to kill the success/Because success needs killing," sings PJ Harvey on "Broken Homes," a strange ode to Biggie Smalls, a New York rapper who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997. In each case—"Abbaon Fat Tracks" and "Broken Homes"—the violent imagery does not sour the sweetness of the voices, nor does sweetness make the violence more palatable. The listener is at once disturbed by the violence and drawn to the beauty.
Finally, Tricky consistently uses the lion-masculinity of the dancehall toaster (or rapper) in fascinating ways. On "Ghetto Youth" (Pre-Millennium Tension), the dancehall toaster reflects on the economic realties of neocolonialism to a thumping, post–Bomb Squad beat and screeching horns. In "Evolution Revolution Love" (Blowback), it serves as the muscular backup for a vocal assault led by Tricky and Ed Kowalczyk. On "Bacative," the best track on Tricky's latest record, Knowle West Boy, the dancehall toaster handles the hard rock beat with complete ease.
What's curious about Tricky's innovations is they have no imitators—with the possible exception of his experiments with dancehall toasting, which, it can be argued, find successors in the work of the Spaceape and Kode9. But outside of that, there's almost nothing. No one makes covers of rap tracks; few to no female singers have tongues that are together roses and razor blades; and as for whispering on the mic, although it was the best solution to a British problem, it has no followers. Tricky's innovations begin and end with him.