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Strike a Juxtapose: Instead of attacking the world around him, Tricky takes himself apart.

Beyond Bravado

Tricky turns punk and hip-hop's ferocity inward

By Michelle Goldberg

ON THE SONG "Black Steel," the brilliant, agitated Public Enemy cover on his 1995 debut album, Maxinquaye, Tricky took all the insurrectionary bravado of the original and turned it inward against himself. If Public Enemy's version was the sound of a street warrior ready to strut into battle, Tricky's was that of a persecuted paranoiac curled in a corner.

"Cold sweat as I dwell on myself/How long has it been?/They've got me sitting in a state pen," his collaborator Martina crooned with the voice of a cockney Billie Holiday. Public Enemy's original emphasized escape--"I contemplated a plan on the cell floor. ... I got a raw deal, so I'm looking for the steel." Tricky's version garbled and understated the way out; it was less a possibility than a defensive delusion.

With "Black Steel" and Maxinquaye, Tricky bridged a yawning gap between post-punk indie rock's self-abasing angst and hip-hop's ego-fortifying braggadocio. The combination of slinky film noir atmosphere and dub effects and the interplay between male and female voices infused electronic music with the melancholic, sublimated passion of the Velvet Underground.

Tricky, like Elvis and countless others before him, was finding a new way to meld white and black music. He collaborated with both Polly Jean Harvey and Wu-Tang's RZA. He turned the classic Eric B. and Rakim song "Lyrics of Fury" into an anxious dirge. Tricky internalized rap's rage: Instead of attacking or dismantling the oppressive world around him, he took himself apart.

Juxtapose is Tricky's most accessible album since Maxinquaye, largely because he seems to have left most of the beats to DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and DMX producer Grease. The result is that the booming, undulating bass is as regular as a heartbeat on "For Real" and "I Like the Girls," making them more structured, if less innovative, than those on Angels With Dirty Faces (1998).

If Tricky's touch is elusive on some of the underlying soundscapes--many of which shriek with unexpected electric guitars--vocally he's more present than ever, alternating a furiously fast, perfectly syncopated raggae-inflected rap with his signature scratchy hiss. Martina, once Tricky's voice and muse, is absent here, and her sweet voice is sorely missed.

What's most fascinating about Juxtapose is the way Tricky negotiates the tension between his B-boy roots and his raw, tender soul. Mining the fear underlying hip-hop's bravado, Tricky prefigured both jungle's dark vision of urban entropy and Eminem's homicidal/suicidal psychodramas.

Here, he spits out lines about Tek-9s into "Hot Like a Sauna." He gives us a lyrical wet dream in the porno fantasy "I Like the Girls," animated by the same kind of comic-book hypervirility that Limp Bizkit use to whip their fans into a pillaging froth. But just as one suspects that he's finally bought into the ugly macho bull that dominates his industry, he turns himself inside out and exposes his flayed heart on the eerie "Contradictive" and the gorgeous "Call Me" and "Wash My Soul."

If Juxtapose occasionally shows the British Tricky emulating his stateside peers, he still hasn't escaped his own claustrophobia. He reserves most of his venom for himself, and he radiates a spine-tingling yearning, a bittersweet incandescent beauty unique to pop music.

If the recounting of misfortunes in hip-hop has often been about proving street cred by showing off battle scars, Tricky's blunt honesty has always seemed more like tearing open a festering wound. That naked appraisal of psychic desperation continues on Juxtapose.

The somnolent beats, loops and washes coalesce into a beautiful whole, but Tricky's shattered soul never does. His talent lies in fusing the rich vibe and intricate structures of hip-hop and reggae--music dedicated to presenting a strong front in the face of a world falling apart--with anguished lyrics about the terror of falling apart in front of the world.

Tricky plays with Stroke and DK Genaside on Saturday (Oct. 2) at 9:30pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., SC. Tickets are $15/$17., (423-1336)

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From the September 29-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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