Trip-hop is a funny style of music, in a way, because as catchy and cool as it sounds, and as vital as it can be when it’s at its best, it’s dominated to such an absurd extent by Bjork, Tricky and Massive Attack that there’s really almost no point in designating it as a thing at all.
And I mean it seems so logical — catchy music set to hip-hop beats, reliant more on production melodies than on long, lyrical rap narratives. For whatever reason, though, it never really seemed to take off and when we got to around the middle of the ’00s decade, Bjork was identifying primarily with MIA, the female British rapper, who apparently had been going through some legal trouble trying to obtain credit for production on her own album, something the former had encountered too.
Well, ironically, lyrics are important in trip-hop. This might certainly seem illogical, given on paper what’s a rather ostentatious makeup of the music itself, in all its big snares, thumping bass and noodley, psychedelic melodies. I think it might have something to do with the fact that hip-hop usually isn’t TRIPPY. It’s meant to be direct and powerful, soothing but still stalwart, not distant and angular.
And it’s arguable at best whether Bjork was ever really grounded in style at all. “Human Behaviour,” her breakout hit off 1993’s Debut, had that jungly, rhythmic beat, but what stole the show without any question was the lyrics, which were existential and philosophical in a holistic, magnanimous way, but still clear and direct enough for anybody to be able to understand them. The central message of the song was “There’s definitely definitely definitely no logic / In human behaviour.”
In general, Debut is a fairly mournful album, with the song “Crying” flanking what she champions as “Venus as a Boy,” which seems to be a sort of righteous figure for his very detachment from everyday life. On her next album Post, she’d move from melancholy to angry, with the in-your-face “Army of Me” leading things off with some tough love. Her enticing desperation and subservience to her own emotions would then score her a big hit with “It’s Oh So Quiet,” but I think her most important lyrical achievement is “Immature” from 1997’s Homogenic. The reason, if you can believe it, has to do with Shania Twain.
I’ll just quote “Immature” right off the bat, as I couldn’t paraphrase it justly: “How could I be so immature? / To think he could replace / The missing elements in me / How extremely lazy of me”. It’s a song about accountability, in other words: the tough love that nobody can save you but yourself, as has often been said in literature, and that seeking romance as an escape from your own shortcomings is a hazardous, doomed endeavor. Well, I can’t help but think about that repugnant Shania Twain song where she finds something wrong with every guy she mentions, only to offer the timeless chivalry of “Don’t get me wrong / Yeah I think you’re alright / But that won’t keep me warm / In the middle of the night”. But Bjork’s message gets back to what she was saying all along — there’s nothing to really rest on in life in realms of interpersonal relationships. You just have to take things as they come, but in terms of fermenting experiences down to seminal messages that get you ready for life, I think we know who wears the crown in late-’90s girl pop.