By the time he began recording his solo debut in early 1994, Adrian Thaws had already enjoyed moderate success as an MC for Massive Attack, performing under the name of the Tricky Kid. However, upon shortening his name and releasing Maxinquaye in 1995, Tricky established himself as one of the trip-hop genre’s biggest stars.
Quite possibly the sexiest record released during the 1990s, Maxinquaye was a complex, layered work that seemed to use hip-hop as a jumping off point from which to explore Tricky’s strange, sexually charged surreal soundscapes. Musically the album interwove elements of rock, pop, trance and dub to produce a menacingly poised musical pastiche that was utterly captivating and, at times, unlike anything that had come before it.
Vocally, Tricky chose to remain veiled in shadow for much of the album, lurking in the background behind his girlfriend at the time, Martina Topley-Bird, whose enchantingly sexy vocals on Maxinquaye established her as one of trip-hop’s leading ladies. It’s worth noting that all of Topley-Bird’s vocals on Maxinquaye were allegedly recorded in one take and with a minimum of preparation.
While many of their trip-hop contemporaries may have relied on innuendo and a tempo that suggested sexuality, Tricky and Topley-Bird are downright explicit throughout Maxinquaye. This is particularly true on tracks like “Abbaon Fat Track” which features Tricky delivering lines like, “I’ll fuck you in the ass/just for a laugh,” and “with the coke, speed/ I’ll make your nose bleed,” in a menacing whisper as Topley-Bird coos suggestively along with him.
At its most conventional, Maxinquaye has more than a little in common with Portishead’s work from the same period. Tracks like “Ponderosa,” “Aftermath” and “Feed Me” would have all meshed perfectly with the songs on Dummy, which was released one year earlier. Other highlights on Maxinquaye include an unlikely cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel,” which with guitar, drums and bass layered over hip-hop beats, sounds almost like something that could have been included on the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. “Brand New You’re Retro,” a hip-hop bouncer laced with guitar riffs that features Topley-Bird delivering a performance that’s reminiscent of Lady Miss Kier on Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is In the Heart,” is the album’s most upbeat track. But Maxinquaye’s finest moment is arguably, “Suffocated Love.” A pretty, ethereal space-age pop song with dirty lyrics, it features Tricky seemingly channeling Prince as he lays down seductive vocals on a bed of drum and bass beneath the shimmering sheets of atmospheric samples that seem to float above them.
Over the years Tricky’s excessive tendencies have at times made his work difficult to access. However his collaboration with co-producer Mark Saunders helps to keep Maxinquaye in check, and even today it remains his one true masterpiece. Critically acclaimed when it was released in 1995, Maxinquaye was nominated for the Mercury Prize and voted Album of the Year by NME. While subsequent releases like Pre-Millennium Tension and Knowle West Boy have touched upon Maxinquaye’s majesty, Tricky has never really succeeded in recording its like again.