Sounds from the outside
Two new album releases show that there's still a place for nonconformists in British pop.
Does British pop still provide a space for misfits? It's a question that has been raised this summer by the re-emergence of two great nonconformists, the rappers Tricky and Roots Manuva. Tricky, born Adrian Thaws in Bristol, was one of a handful of artists who sat awkwardly in the UK's laddish music scene of the second half of the 1990s. Maxinquaye (1995) was a huge hit, the first of several albums that took a dubby, laconic approach to hip-hop and rock, wreathed in murmured boy-girl vocal duets with a lyrical sensibility that drew on his fractured upbringing (rough council estate; absent father; a mother who committed suicide when he was four). His androgynous, eyeliner-laden appearance in publicity photos seemed like a throwback to 1970s glam, or even punk, evoking that peculiar combination of allure and menace. Blur may have referenced Stanley Kubrick's vision of A Clockwork Orange knowingly (in the video to 1995's "The Universal"), but it was Tricky who embodied the contradictions of Alex, its delinquent protagonist.
After Maxinquaye, Tricky's albums were increasingly dismissed as self-indulgent by critics who baulked at their expansive musical scope - and the record-buying public appeared to agree. But perhaps there was also a sense that he didn't fit into an increasingly regimented cultural landscape. Even as new Labour was conjuring the illusion of a classless society, Britpop was helping regroup national identity around a series of class-ridden stereotypes. Let's put it this way: when the newly elected Tony Blair threw a party to show off his common touch in 1997, he invited Noel Gallagher, whose group Oasis radiated a whole host of proletarian clichés, but not Tricky, a maker of polysexual, mixed-race pop music with ideas well above its station.
After several years in the US pursuing a more conventional hip-hop sound (followed by several years of nothing), Tricky marks his return to Britain with Knowle West Boy. Named after the Bristol estate on which he grew up, the album rifles through the sounds that influenced Tricky during his formative years: Eighties pop, punk and reggae. The Specials and Blondie loom large here, particularly on the album's first single, "Council Estate", which is propelled by a punky bassline and clattering drums.
The song's lyrics paint a picture of defiant youth: "We don't like school, in a week go once/ Don't like police cos they kick and they punch". In the chorus, the voice changes position. "You can be who you be, but you're not who you are," snarls Tricky to his younger self.
Elsewhere, "School Gates" tells the story of a teenage pregnancy from the point of view of the father, while on "Coalition", Tricky mumbles gloomily about Happy Meals, Iran and getting "killed by friendly fire". This political dimension sounds a little forced. Back in Britain, he finds himself in a climate in which working-class youths are routinely written off as thugs, drunkards or slappers (or all three) by the media and politicians. His politics have always lain in the refusal to conform to type. How much more gratifying would it have been to throw another curveball rather than such plodding lyrics?
Only occasionally does Knowle West Boy display the ambiguity that brought Tricky's earlier records to life: on "Bacative", the album's most successful track, one voice fires off Jamaican patois while another sings mournfully over a wash of synthesisers, harmonica and an insistent drumbeat. Ghostly guitar chords sit just on the edge of hearing. Can you make out an echo of the Clash's "London Calling", or is your mind playing tricks? It's a fleeting moment, in a rather patchy album.
Tricky may be past his glory days, but Roots Manuva could be heading in the opposite direction. Over the past decade, the artist less commonly known as Rodney Smith has shuffled around on the edges of mainstream consciousness, carving out a furrow as the skew-eyed poet of south London. Smith's music evokes a hyper-localised atmosphere, that of his native Stockwell: lyrical references to pints of bitter and P J Patel's corner shop - filtered through a mock- religious delivery courtesy of his Pentecostal upbringing - meld with the African-Caribbean sounds of a basement rave filled with "sweaty boogie folk", as Smith put it on his 1999 debut, Brand New Second Hand.
With this approach, Smith has avoided the pressure to follow the homogeneous, transatlantic trend of 21st-century pop. By way of comparison, Estelle, his one-time contemporary on the UK hip-hop scene, has managed to find success only by moving to New York and recasting herself in the mould of a US R'n'B singer. He's never quite broken into the mainstream, though, and on 2005's "Colossal Insight" he warned that "this could be my last LP".
If in the past he has shown a tendency for too much introspection, this is blown away by the ebullient surrealism of his new album, Slime and Reason. On the opening track, "Again and Again", Smith announces that he's "here to uplift", over a fanfare of carnival horns played on a cheap keyboard. "Buff Nuff" and "Do Nah Bodda Mi", are fast-paced, off-kilter dance tracks with lyrics that cycle through chat-up lines and a blazing row, respectively. The album's heart lies in the track "Let the Spirit". Over swirling chords and an electro beat, Smith exhorts listeners to "break the shackle and the chains" - without the mock-portentous preacher voice for once.
Slime and Reason could have done with some judicious editing: it's too long, and it dips in the middle thanks to a couple of head-nodding songs with meandering wordplay. But it's a wonderful, wonky effort: everyday urban lives refracted through the frosted bottom of a pint glass at ten minutes to closing time. Squint, and you could just about see some of these tracks bothering the charts.
Smith might like playing the entertainer a little too much to provide a critique of modern Britain in the way Tricky once did, but he has an ear for the sounds and rhythms of the south London streets, and these are a welcome addition to the pop vernacular.
"Knowle West Boy" (Domino) is out now
"Slime and Reason" (Big Dada) is released on 1 September