In 1995, it felt like hell was hiding somewhere just around the corner. Heading into middle school, in a nearly all-black school, in a nearly all-black neighborhood, I was just some timid ghost-faced kid, looking to keep my head down, to go unnoticed. These were the mid-decade years, when gang wars were circuitously waged, the years before the bottom fell out, before ’Pac and Biggie got shot down, staunching an era of bleeding wealth and unchecked aggression. I remember trying to make conversation with the kids in my classes, following their diction, their interests, hoping to make friends. I went to the then-ubiquitous National Record Mart to pick up a rap album, and — confusing trip-hop with hip-hop — came home with Maxinquaye instead. I learned then the impossibility of making distinctions between two unknown quantities. As his name suggested, Tricky didn’t make it any easier to expand my social circle. But I understood Maxinquaye, even if I was still too young and sober to make much sense of its dense, dirty collage; I enjoyed it enough that I bought Pre-Millennium Tension two years later, and Angels With Dirty Faces another two years after that.
It was 1998 by then. Once the clocks struck 12:01 AM on January 1, 2000, those pre-millennial tensions dissipated, dismissed as the symptom of another mass societal panic. It was a strange time in human history, the years between those in which Tricky’s fellow Britronica peer Goldie went from Bond henchman to “who?” The world gave up on electronic music for a while, trading garage for garage rock. Tricky never managed to adjust to the new millennium, and likewise, he never quite recovered from his pre-Y2K achievements; his most recent three records were diluted, subtractive additions to his discography. Former Bristol peers Portishead spent more than a decade on ice before reactivating. Perhaps their success inspired Tricky (but most likely this is just a Gematriatic, long-in-the-Perkus-Tooth interpretation), because Mixed Race is easily his most consistently enjoyable album since the 1990s. Ponder that for a second.
Now that you’ve had that length, and therefore must also have acknowledged the velocity with which we are hurtling toward our inescapable doom, please note that Mixed Race doesn’t exactly have heavyweight competition in that particular match-up. If being enjoyable is enough, then Tricky’s ninth LP is an unqualified success. Perhaps LP is the wrong term; at less than half an hour, Mixed Race isn’t particularly long. It also fails to reach the current standard for his genre; Flying Lotus makes the soundtrack for Cory Doctorow’s wet dreams, and Burial — whenever he emerges out of the grimy underworld of his own design — is almost universally mentioned in reverent terms. Backhanded as this might sound, Tricky has been doing this for too damn long to be compared to the most recent heirs to his former throne.
Portishead’s Third would be a more merciful point of comparison. And by that measure, Mixed Race appears slightly less irrelevant. While never as glacial or terrifying as Third, Mixed Race does successfully tap into similar polyglottic veins of post-9/11 (and post-hegemonic) anxiety. Arriving shortly after Busta Rhymes heralded the return of Daft Punk, Third never stooped to repackage those French humanoids. But Tricky proves to be lacking in pride just enough to repurpose “Technologic” — the same song that Rhymes drew from for 2006’s “Touch It” — as a different sort of roughneck stick-up anthem. Regardless of its tardy concession to a former trend, “Kingston Logic” works. As does the bluesy, “Way Down In The Hole”-ish “Every Day,” as well as “Time To Dance,” a Feist-y number that makes “Sea Lion Woman” seem edgy in comparison. In fact, every song here works individually, and the album flows well enough that the whole feels greater than its slight parts.
Never mind that Tricky has probably squandered too much goodwill to gain many notices; Mixed Race is a worthwhile enough album to deserve some supportive attention. Even if it isn’t a return to form — it’s more of a return from formlessness — Tricky has finally figured out how to adapt, albeit in depreciated fashion. It’s funny to me that Tricky took longer to grow up than I did; but once again, it bears repeating that the refractions of former glories should never overshadow current rays of hope. Mixed Race cannot compare to Maxinquaye; it is better than what it could or should be, far preferable to those albums that directly preceded it, and certainly less embarrassing — but also less ambitious — than the past few Massive Attack records. There’s little reason to champion a release this minor, but the stubborn, misguided middle-schooler within says I should defend it anyhow. Mild as it might be, Mixed Race is a solid effort from someone who insists on sticking around. Tricky’s show of persistence itself deserves some kudos, but as is, Mixed Race is even more commendable on the basis of its own merits.