Tricky and the Muse

On the trip-hop master's new album, Knowle West Boy, it's Leeds singer Alex Mills.

Vivisecting Tricky's body of work means calling on gender theorists, postmodern feminists, and even Sigmund Freud (if he could overcome the alleged tone-deafness). The Bristol, England artist fills the void created by his mother's death (she committed suicide when he was four) through lyrical and stylistic transvestitism, tinkering with gender-specific language, and drawing from creativity reliant on male/female symbiosis.

Part of Tricky's roots lie in hip-hop, a genre that's often fostered a particularly misogynistic opinion of women. His penchant for tucking away the machismo and appointing female vocalists as the more anatomically superior of the two genders is what separates him from brethren. Self-analysis is done though a prism of relationships; self-growth is more crucial than things such as heart-shaped candy boxes, walks in the park, and kinky sex.

"Puppy Toy," from the recently released Knowle West Boy, finds Leeds singer Alex Mills playing a sassy foil to Tricky's bar-scene prowler. She's clever, assured, and sadistic enough to achieve a thrill from strolling across a man's back in a pair of heels. With the brilliant lyric "Your fruit is slightly bruised," one can't help but think she's calling into question Tricky's manhood — or his manhood. The wordplay in "Veronika" is equally whip-smart, though a touch more shrewd, as the Italian wren of the same name brings down her ex-lover from the inside. Accusations are landmined with blame and guilt. Love can be emotionally castrating, Tricky shows us, when it all goes to shit.

"I Sing for You," off 1996's Nearly God, is equally weighty. Tricky allows rare, unrestricted access to his gaffes and anxieties, which brings about his intended result. "I sing for you," the compassionate Cath Coffey informs, "so you can find your way home." On Tricky's masterstroke, Maxinquaye's "Suffocated Love," dialogue isn't so tender. This time the siren is longtime collaborator (and past lover) Martina Topley-Bird, who wracks Tricky with swirling doubt. Is it love? Is it lust? Before he can decide, Martina delivers a visceral take on the stifling, lose-yourself aspects of a relationship: "Will you spend your life with me/And stifle me?/I know why the caged bird sings." But we know what his ultimate decision will be. For Tricky it's always been the same. Women: You can live with them, but you can't grow without them.

 
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