Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
An homage in name to Tricky’s late mother Maxine Quaye, who died when he was just four years old, Maxinquaye more than delivered upon the promise that had been manifest in his previous supporting roles as part of The Wild Bunch and Fresh 4, as well as his collaborations with fellow Bristol innovators Massive Attack. The album also heralded the proper arrival of a wickedly talented voice and musical visionary.
A gritty, intoxicating, and inventive head-rush of an album, the Mercury Prize-nominated Maxinquaye confirmed that Tricky’s musical imagination is more vivid than the vast majority of artists working today. While it is primarily indebted to hip-hop, the album blends multiple styles including ambient, dub, reggae, and rock, making it damn near impossible to pigeonhole, and thankfully so. Its twelve songs are dominated by atmospheric, chilled-out fare that sound like the most beautifully dark and twisted lullabies you’ll ever dream of hearing. And a few propulsive, beat-driven compositions are incorporated throughout to ensure a more balanced, monotony-free listening experience, overall.
What ultimately makes Maxinquaye so unforgettable is that it is an album of marked contrasts that play off of each other to extraordinary effect. The most striking example of this is the intriguing juxtaposition of featured vocalist Martina Topley-Bird’s freshly alluring voice with Tricky’s substantially less polished, unabashedly raw wordplay. In theory, the combination of such antithetical vocal styles shouldn’t engender such an enchanting sound. But it most certainly does here.
Presumably well aware of the vocal gold he had to work with in recording the album, Tricky actually defers much of the spotlight to Topley-Bird, whose not-so-secret weapon of a voice features on the majority of the songs and very nearly steals the show, single-handedly. And though she contributes to just one song (“Pumpkin,”), Alison Goldfrapp also thoroughly dominates the proceeding with her vocal prowess, which would find universal acclaim in its own right five years later with the release of Goldfrapp’s debut LP Felt Mountain.
In addition to its seemingly incongruous vocal pairings, Maxinquaye’s duality is further manifested in its sonic inspirations. It sounds very much like a futuristic record, and remarkably so, considering that it borrows so heavily from the classic soul and hip-hop that predates it. Samples abound throughout the album, most notably on “Brand New You’re Retro” (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”), “Aftermath” (Marvin Gaye’s “That’s the Way Love Is”), “Feed Me” (KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police”), and “Hell is Around the Corner” (Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap II,” which was also lifted by Portishead on their “Glory Box” single).
The key to making this dichotomy between old and new work so effectively is Tricky’s commitment to constructing these songs as distinctively original compositions, as opposed to the lazily recycled rehashes of already-proven songs that producers of lesser ambition often lean on. “Black Steel,” a cover of Public Enemy’s classic prison-break anthem “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” is the prime example of Tricky’s originality. Aside from staying true to Chuck D’s lyrics (sung by Topley-Bird here), the song’s mix of propulsive drums and guitars sounds nothing like PE’s version, further affirming the album’s pure ingenuity.
It’s a fantastic record that requires repeated, focused listens (headphones are highly recommended) to fully understand and appreciate its genius. Along with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Portishead’s Dummy, Maxinquaye completes the triumvirate of quintessential recordings that collectively define the Bristol Sound that many would attempt—and fail—to replicate time and time again.