Paranoia can change an artist. We see it in musicians who vanish for years at a time, unwilling to write the follow-up record their fans want. We see it with image-conscious experimental producers who bristle at opportunities to work with pop artists. We particularly see it in the career of Tricky, who blessed the early nineties with some of the most seductive, vivid, claustrophobic pop music ever created. In line with the ennui of his on-record persona, he abandoned the style almost as quickly as he picked it up. Later, when asked about the period, he was concise: "I will fucking deny having anything to do with it," he told Melody Maker in 1997. Two decades of left turns and confounding records followed. For better or worse, he would never be pigeonholed again.
The difference between these two eras shapes most of the conversation around the artist born Adrian Thaws, an unquestionably innovative figure in pop history who has been alternatively reexamined every album cycle or dismissed as a has-been. For every glowing exaltation of his 1995 debut LP, Maxinquaye, and its gorgeous gloom, there are those who despise the indulgent latter-day experimental entries in his sizable discography. There are still those who lived through the nineties and continue to blame him for the endless compilations of fusion restaurant musical wallpaper built off his records. A reasonable take likely lies in between and depends on your tolerance for Muzak and Tricky's inconsistent ability to curate his output.
Tricky's early days are well documented. He first hopped into the spotlight as the unofficial fourth member of British electronic icons Massive Attack. On 1992's Blue Lines, he flexed a surreal, world-weary rap sensibility that he later fleshed out on Maxinquaye, as well as the equally excellent but lesser-known Nearly God. (He released it under a pseudonym of the same name.) During this period, he also cowrote Bjork's "Headphones" and "Yoga," which appeared on her landmark 1995 record, Post, and dated her for a time. This is the era that people remember, and rightfully so. In an emotionally forward genre like trip-hop, which toes the line between cinema and melodrama, the music ages like milk if not crafted with particular care. These records hold up exceptionally well. In our current throes of nineties revival, even goofy throwaway lines like "Seduce me/Dress me up in Stussy" somehow still seem relevant.
The greater trip-hop scene quickly spiraled into shorthand for saccharine instrumental hip-hop, with many Beth Gibbons and Joshua Davis knockoffs soundtracking boutiques and middle-class dinners. Tricky was already out. He did remix work for rock bands like Bush, entertained offers from bands like U2 to produce albums, and busted out his acting chops with a sizable supporting role in The Fifth Element. He brightened up his musical disposition and collaborated with Alanis Morissette and Ed Kowalczyk from Live. His résumé from the late nineties through the early aughts looks like it was purposely designed to elicit confused looks.
In late September, Tricky released Ununiform, his thirteenth record. It is the latest in a long chain of releases that involve Tricky skipping around among genres however he sees fit. Most of these have been interesting and indulgent, sometimes fantastic, and occasionally downright unlistenable. After an acrimonious break with Domino Records, he's self-released his more recent albums with the self-imposed editing (or lack thereof) that comes with that freedom. Ununiform, true to latter-day Tricky form, features a rotating cast of guest vocalists. There's Russian rapper Smoky Mo, Kazakh rapper Scriptonite, and a return appearance from Martina Topley-Bird, the secret weapon behind most of Tricky's best nineties material. They all bring something unique, but as usual, Tricky's presence on the record starts to evaporate behind the guests, who themselves start to feel interchangeable if you aren't keeping close tabs. There's a lackluster cover of Hole's "Doll Parts" buried in there, too.
As those esoteric features might hint, Tricky has proven in interviews to be surprisingly plugged into the current music scene. In a recent FACT Magazine documentary, he describes playing several shows with the rapper Mykki Blanco, who featured on his 2014 release, Adrian Thaws, and how blown away he was by Blanco's performance style and a cappella rapping. His taste is reassuring: it reminds us that, with better curation, Tricky could still synthesize all his interests into a truly vital artistic statement. Until then, his work will continue to confound, which is probably how he likes it.