One of the stranger narratives in the annals of pop music during the early ‘90s tells how, in both Britain and the U.S., musical subcultures from culturally marginal cities suddenly burst into prominence to dictate, for a time, the cultural conversation in their respective nations. The similarities between Seattle and Bristol were more than merely incidental. Both were port cities facing an ocean to their west; the local economies of both depended heavily on technological research and airplane manufacturing; both were condemned to persistently wet and overcast weather. In both cases it’s highly possible the sodden, light-starved climate crept into the sound. Much as Seattle’s grunge rock became notorious for its introverted postures and depressive aggravations, Bristolian trip-hop cloaked itself in shadowy indirection and densely dripping bass. Both grunge and trip-hop entered their respective national spotlights in 1991: September will mark the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind just as August marks the quarter-century milestone for the American release of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. (Blue Lines came out in the U.K. in April.) Unlike the diamond-selling Nevermind, Blue Lines (which went double platinum in the U.K.) has yet to even go gold in the States. Yet the Massive debut isn’t merely a cult classic or a relic from a foreign, bygone world — in fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that few contemporary collections sum up as many current trends in American pop as Blue Lines. Though it lacks Nevermind’s omnipresence in the States, the spirit of innovation still active in Blue Lines seems to have rendered it not only relevant but newer than ever.
As the group’s name suggests, Massive Attack has always been characterized by a broad, loose sense of team spirit. Robert “3D” Del Naja, Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, and Andy “Mushroom” Vowles, the initial members of the group, met as members of the Wild Bunch, a sprawling collective of DJs, engineers, musicians, and graffiti artists emerging from the streets of Bristol in the ‘80s that was one of the first and largest English versions of Jamaican sound system culture to emerge in the wake of postwar West Indian emigration to England. Though Del Naja and Marshall rapped on occasion, the three were primarily DJs and producers who counted on others to take care of more dedicated vocal work: Blue Lines relies heavily on the guest labor provided by roots reggae singer Horace Andy, soul singers Tony Bryan and Shara Nelson, and Bristol rapper Adrian “Tricky” Thaws. The variety of voices was matched by eclecticism in production, where elements of dub, R&B, dance, and hip-hop swirl in strange juxtapositions within a smooth and heavy general atmosphere. The singers are charged with commitment and spirit while the rappers evince wariness and reserve; the pace of the surrounding sound toggles between languid and urgent according to a logic not entirely related to the lyrical content.
In the midst of so much flux, the album’s tone is especially difficult to place. Andy’s paean to romantic dedication on “One Love” is matched with a beat that flows at the speed of molasses, but then so too is the self-vaunting of the posse cut “Five Man Army” and Nelson’s straining after a vanished love on “Lately”; meanwhile, Tricky and 3D’s pensive anxiety on “Blue Lines,” Nelson’s maternal concern on “Safe From Harm,” and her ecstasy of new, uncertain love on “Unfinished Sympathy” — “You’re a book that I have opened, and now I’ve got to know much more” — are all backed by heartbeat-raising instrumentals. Blue Lines contains multitudes, but its breadth is a measure of its ambivalence. Dread is shot through with pleasure, and delight is tinged by fear. One is capable of anything, it seems, except for settling down: The final consummation, whether of joy or of despair, is endlessly striven after, and endlessly deferred.
It isn’t hard to draw a link between the unsettled spirit of Blue Lines and the biographies of its artists, all of whom are the children of recent British immigrants and nearly all of whom are black. (Del Naja is the son of an Italian immigrant.) The genius of the album lies in the casual precision with which it discovers lyrical and sonic counterparts for the experience of socially marginal second-generation immigrants — for their displacement and bewilderment, to be sure, but also for the curiosity that emerges from displacement and for the perceptiveness at the core of bewilderment. Unlike American hip-hop, which could and did draw from the deep wells of prior black American music and a rich, hugely influential, long-established, autonomous black culture, the hip-hop of black British artists had no native antecedents: Much as was the case with immigrants of color in Canada and continental Europe, their economic deprivation and social alienation was compounded by cultural invisibility. With its splicings of soul, reggae, and hip-hop (and its implicit reference to the blues), Blue Lines is clearly an extension of global black music, but it also marks the foundation of a new mode of music, black and British in equal measure, to represent a population that had never before had a serious presence in mainstream British culture:
It’s a beautiful day, well, it seems as such
Beautiful thoughts means I dream too much
Even if I told you, you still would not know me
Tricky never does, Adrian mostly gets lonely
How we live in this existence, just being
English upbringing, background Caribbean
Suspiciousness and fantasy, inscrutability and isolation, existential groundlessness: Tricky lands on just the right tone to touch on every facet of the immigrant mentality, balancing his alien assertiveness with just the right measure of native indirection and mating his personal tendencies toward depressiveness with those of Britain as a whole.
Taken broadly, the influence of Massive Attack has been in keeping with its name. Tricky would part ways with the collective and commence a solo career, thickening his music to an incredible density to simulate extreme psychic pressure. Geoff Barrow, one of the interns at the Blue Lines recording sessions, would go on to co-found Portishead, another great, moody, and rigorous Bristol group whose sound, suitably bastardized, would manifest in indie music all across the Anglosphere. (Portishead would have a less obvious, but more salutary, influence on American rap.) Over time, Massive Attack would slowly lose members, chemistry, and momentum. Though the general level of the group’s music, now animated by a cold grandeur verging on the scientific, remained reasonably high, the sustained humanity and ineffable freshness of Blue Lines would never return.
Yet, somehow, this doesn’t mean that the album is lost in the past. The privileging of producers over vocalists, the Jamaican inflections, the ready alternation between singing and rapping, the casual trampling over boundaries between genres, the introversion — all of these prominent aspects of Blue Lines are also features of the present moment in American pop music and the black American music upon which it relies. How could an album released 25 years ago in a foreign country prove so prophetic? I suspect it has something to do with culture: Coming from a society that frowned on exuberant displays of self and in which unhappiness was one of the few emotions one was allowed to publicly display, the British hip-hop of Massive Attack skipped all of the phases of hip-hop’s evolution characterized by the blatant egoism, violence, and money-worship prized by American culture. (This is why British hip-hop in general, be it trip-hop, garage, or grime, reliably fails to breach American markets.)
The lyrics in Blue Lines aren’t about getting rich, but getting by; being grateful, as opposed to greedy; loving one person constantly, instead of juggling several; holding back from firing the gun rather than firing it. Now that a quarter-century dominated by Trumpian belligerence and declarations of self-worth has all but run its course, it makes sense that hip-hop has come to resemble the state of Blue Lines more and more. There will never be a full convergence, of course: Americans are too vain, too desperate, and too bitter for that. But I’m grateful that, even if we never get to it, Blue Lines will continue to hover slightly ahead of us in the near future, its ever-novel sound shaping the image of an alternate reality — far from any actual nation, whether Britain or America or any other — where style, humility, and universalism prevail over, or at least fend off temporarily, the pride and partisan wrath native to humanity.