Between U.K. MC Ms. Dynamite’s debut and the rhyme battle rumored to be brewing between Birmingham’s Mike “the Streets” Skinner and Brixton’s Roots Manuva, 2002 may go down in history as the year the British rap scene finally blew up.But don’t tell that to Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, Robert “3D” Del Naja, and Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles. In the ’80s, they ran with Bristol, England, hip-hop crew the Wild Bunch, who pretty muchwere the British rap scene back then. After the Bunch splintered, the trio formed Massive Attack; and since then, they’ve gotten little credit as British hip-hop torchbearers, even though their slow-mo beats swaggered like Shaft and their MCs managed to make the Queen’s English flow. Stuck on orchestral soul and dub reggae, they seemed too mongrel, too alien to share a genre with Def Jam types. So their debut, Blue Lines, got filed under “trip-hop,” and its ambient soul cast a decade-long shadow (see Moby, who built a cottage industry out of “Unfinished Sympathy”).
Follow-ups Protection and Mezzanine codified the Massive formula: lushly stoned MC tracks, some sage lovers’ rock by reggae vet Horace Andy, a freelance-diva number or two. The menu is the same on 100th Window, but this is a very different Massive Attack. With Mushroom gone and Daddy G on “sabbatical,” this is effectively a 3D solo joint. And few will read it as hip-hop.
At this point, 3D is the elder, English equivalent of New York indie-rap hero El-P–a paranoid rhymer, mad sound scientist, and creative megalomaniac whom you suspect spends too much time at home sparking blunts and surfing conspiracy-theory websites like whatreallyhappened.com (among the many poli-sci links currently spotlighted at massiveattack.com). 100th Window–named for a book on computer snooping–is the sound of a solitary man succumbing to his laptop’s siren song. Test tones, the suck of a ventilator shaft, furnace turbines, and distant guitar feedback eddy and sputter, blanketing abstract, dystopian verse. “Chemicals captured in winter’s grip turn us on / Separate the leper / Hungry ghost,” 3D murmurs, sounding as uncomfortably numb as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke circa Kid A.
Elsewhere, Horace Andy becomes a dub poltergeist on two tracks that unspool like experimental films, while diva duties go to Sinéad O’Connor, who’s lately been moonlighting as both a techno-house hook queen and a folkie modernist (check her work with Moby and Conjure One for the former, her dub-wise Sean-N#243;s Nua for the latter). It’s a sound choice: O’Connor’s barbed Enya-isms fit the album’s antsy chill-out vibe, and her sermon on “A Prayer for England”–which beseeches Jah to save the children–is as reassuring, in its own way, as Jigga praising his own mic skills.
100th Window is a masterpiece of haunted sonics. But the spirit of community that once warmed this band’s angsty soul is missing. Even the deep Arabic fusions of “Anti-Star” and “Butterfly Caught”–gestures of cultural solidarity from a group who briefly changed their name to Massive in the early ’90s to protest the Gulf War and who’ve spoken out against the current saber-rattling in the Mideast–sound menacing. Maybe there’ll be more light on the record’s follow-up, which will reportedly feature Daddy G along with such guests as Mos Def, Faith No More screamer Mike Patton, and Tom Waits. Note to 3D: If old-school émigré Slick Rick really gets deported back to England, ring him up. It’s never too late to rewrite history.