No pop star is as aptly nicknamed as Tricky—not Ol’ Dirty Bastard, not Flea, not even p. When a pop star like Will Smith or Mary J. Blige drops a sample, their purposes are transparent. They filch riffs from old-school tunes to give you that nostalgic déjà vu all over again. At worst, what they accomplish is superstar karaoke. It’s true that all artists pilfer ideas and incorporate references even when they’re making new work, but until the 20th century, most truly original art couldn’t be comprised entirely of appropriated material. Sherry Levine was able to make her name by taking photographs of famous men’s paintings; something similar is now happening in popular music, especially DJ-reliant musical forms. You no longer have to write the song—you just need the curatorial sense to drop it at the right cultural moment.
Not to overpraise him, but Tricky’s devious methods swoop in and out of pop music and modern art sensibilities in a disturbing haze. Like a lot of experimental-theater practitioners, say, he views pop culture the way a virus might look at the human body—a place to invade, inhabit, replicate in, and then destroy. His usual goal, though he doesn’t always meet it, is to break open the nucleus of his stolen materials and replace its DNA with his own. The dribs and drabs of culture he swipes would be considered garbage by the likes of Mary and Will. On his dark, sneaky debut Maxinquaye, he flipped Michael Jackson’s “Bad”—eww, wack!—into a scathing diatribe directed at Rage Against the Machine’s Zak De La Rocha called “Brand New You’re Retro”; he cribbed lyrics from Chuck D wholesale (they used to call that biting, and only sucker MCs did it) while his singing muse and babymother Martina Topley-Bird warbled them in a junkie drawl. On his second album, Pre-Millennium Tension, he remolded a line from the Presidents of the United States of America—double wack!!—”Everyone wants to be just like me/I’m naked and famous,” into his own personal statement. Naked and Famous is now the name of a documentary about him. That isn’t appropriation, sampling, referencing, or even recontextualization—it’s theft, pure and simple. After a while, all he had to do was croak the word “ironic” in his inimitable, scratchy patois and you wondered if he was pilfering from Alanis. Tricky’s the kind of nigga, to paraphrase Chris Rock, who’ll steal your shit and then come by the next day going, “Heard you got robbed!” Hence the nickname.
In 1998, Tricky produced a fascinating attempt at self-destruction called Angels With Dirty Faces—a vitriolic, hallucinogenic fuck you to everyone. The rock metier may welcome such indulgence, but Tricky also committed the sin of bitching and conspiracy-theorizing, barking self-importantly, “Success needs killing /Murder is media/Life is pain/Murder is fame.” Rock stars who truck in paranoia often don’t know whom to trust when the yes-men come calling. They end up believing in little other than, say, “Yoko and me.” “Fuck the music industry!” Tricky proclaimed on AWDF, but despite this moral imperative, he released the CD. Further lyrics consisted of death threats to journalists. Some artists have demons. Tricky is his own demon.
However, the new Juxtapose rings strangely mellow and conciliatory, opening with the practically friendly acoustic guitars of “For Real,” in which the possibly repentant artist formerly known as Adrian Thaws rasps, “Some things you take too seriously/Your record deal.” In keeping with that idea, Tricky has made more of an effort to play well with others outside his usual cast of characters—DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and DMX producer Grease, for starters. Martina, at work on a solo album, has been supplanted by the breathier, desafinado Kioka. With the addition of light-speed rapper Mad Dog, sort of a male Monie Love with the sensibility of Foxy Brown, the whole affair sounds, well, a tad normal. It’s unclear whether shedding a few of his arty conceits is a good thing for Tricky in the long run, partially be cause his new Americanized model ups the sexism at the expense of Tricky’s flexible ideas about gender roles. The Manu Dibango–flavored “She Said”‘s “fuck her, kill her, and split” narrative will disappoint anyone who loved the standoffish ambiguity Tricky once made so gorgeous in “Christiansands,” or ad mired his forays into cross-dressing. Even Mad Dog’s cute schoolboy cadences can’t save the tired lesbian hooker fantasy of “I Like the Girls.” The tinny synthesizers of “Hot Like a Sauna” sound like they belong in a Mortal Kombat film.
But after AWDF, it’s a relief to hear Tricky enjoying himself. Just 36 minutes long, it’s hard to consider Juxtapose more than a passing flirtation with the mainstream. Nevertheless, this album goes down smoother than anything that’s come from up Mr. Thaws’s sleeve since Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines. Perhaps the trickiest move for a man who once said he got his moniker because he “liked being unreliable” is to pretend nothing has happened since 1991.
Tricky plays the Bowery Ballroom September 16.