3 1/2 stars
TRICKY SAW THE FUTURE ON HIS first two albums: With 1995's Maxinquaye, he played foster father to a freshly hatched brat called trip-hop; on his follow-up, 1996's Pre-Millennium Tension, he created a fractured, trans-genre masterpiece. Now, on his third solo album, the sonic auteur turns to his past. Like its predecessors, Angels With Dirty Faces revolves around montages: Spooky, hollowed-out blues riffs serve as disjunctive counterpoint to Martina Topley-Bird's soulful vocals; stammering beats and bass lines splinter, then coalesce into deep-dub pudding. But in spirit, the album cuts closer to Tricky's 1996 hip-hop EP, Return to the Grassoots - recorded shortly after he relocated to New York - than it does to Pre-Millennium's chilly soundscapes.
   Angels delights in blurring stylistic borders, but it aslo strives to forge earthy connections. The result is Tricky's most personal - yet quixotically estranged - work to date. On "Broken Homes," guest PJ Harvey's husky white-soul vocal (backed by a gospel choir) mourns gangsta violence while Tricky relegates himself to a whispering ghost who softly laments, "We lose our voice more each year / Alive is pain, murder is fame." With the next track, "6 Minutes," he moves up to first-person singular with a funky guitar as backup, declaring in his asthmatic, ganja-damaged croak, "Now it's gone too far / And all the tough guys are dropping like flies." In the melancholy, jazz-inflected "Demise," Tricky acknowledges both his alienation from and his kinship with rap's OG vanguard: "I'm too scared to be a gun-toting gangsta wanna be," he confesses.
   Angels With Dirty Faces is more than a star's gratuitous shout-out to the homeys: It's a renegade Brit B-boy's caustic, lyrical declaration of self. In abandoning his brilliant but lonely musical diaspora, trip-hop's mongrel daddy has found his hip-hop soul.

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