In many ways, Tricky made the album that The Streets should have made this year—an origin story, ripe with paranoia, touting ego to spare, but in a self-aware way, using crystalline production to weld together off-kilter beats; an album equal parts subtle and over-the-top; an album that obstinately screams, “Remember, boy, you’re a superstar,” in a thick working-class British accent. Honestly, if Mike Skinner had made Knowle West Boy, he would have never met the same shrug of indifference that Tricky did in 2008. But everybody gave up on Tricky a long time ago. After the release of the seminal Maxinquaye in 1995, tethered to a genre intrinsically linked with 90’s nostalgia and a sound diluted by dozens of Sneaker Pimps and Nightmares on Wax, Tricky chose to get more and more insular and impenetrable with the release of each album.
Knowle West Boy finds Tricky locked back in to the world outside himself, and it results in his best album in a decade. It opens with Tricky commenting on himself as he picks up a girl at a bar. He may as well be commenting on his relationship with his audience, or with critics, as he sings, “Friends, girl, they come and go/But trends remain in constant flow” before bursting into a pop-R&B chorus (think Christina Aguilara.) Violins intertwine with feedback-soaked guitar and bass licks. “Veronika” pits temporary muse Veronika Coassolo against a persistent, reverb-heavy march. “Council Estate” is a frenetic statement-of-purpose that sounds like “Firestarter” recovering from a dopamine bender. “Baligaga” slings beef around as if its early-millennium rap with a dancehall patois—“Dem bwoy, dey a TV gangsta/Coulda neva wanna see my anger/Can you relate?/It's too late”—as if Tricky can’t reconcile his need for credibility with his need to be heard.
In the mid-90’s, Tricky re-interpreted Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos,” turning the Public Enemy screed into a slinky trip-hop jam (not, in his hands, a contradiction in terms) sung by chanteuse Martina Topley-Bird. “I'm not a fugitive on the run/But a brother like me begun to be another one/Public enemy servin' time,” sung by Topley-Bird as a surrogate for Tricky, established him as a bit of a schizophrenic personality on record—an impression backed up by his twisted song constructions (playing loops backwards, co-opting samples from his contemporaries.) On Knowle West Boy’s “Coalition”, he references Public Enemy again—or at least Gil Scott-Heron by way of Public Enemy—as he says the “Revolution will be televised… in Iran and the Holy Koran.” That moment is a lot of things. Of course, it’s a pop culture reference, twisted into a quasi-political statement that probably means nothing. It’s bait. But, after years in danger of being swallowed by his own insularity, it’s also a sign that Tricky is interested in communication again. Pop culture references and political hokum demand participation on the other side of the speakers, for all of his experimentalism, that’s something Tricky’s been missing for years. He’s getting back into the game.
Perhaps that’s why he chooses to cover Kylie Minogue’s “Slow.” Like he did with “Black Steel,” he turns the 2003 pop confection into a guttural squeal, with electric guitar going bananas while two versions of the song are sung at once—one by underrated singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini, who turns Minogue’s come-ons into pleasantly confident commands; and Tricky, who makes them unnervingly skeevy. That duality plays itself out across the entire album, which continues to tread between moments of accessibility and moments of experimentalism, as if Tricky is trying to figure out either how much he has to do to draw you in or how much he can get away with before pushing you away.
-Martin Brown, 2008