#100: Heltah Skeltah, Nocturnal (1996)
I am writing this review as the first in a projected one hundred reviews of Rateyourmusic.com’s top hip-hop albums of all time. The viability of such an undertaking can be debated--I encourage you all to take bets on how long I’ll last--but it seems to me somehow significant that this album slides in at the very bottom of the list. Nocturnal
is, by my count, the single album out of the hundred that I had never heard of prior to looking it up; it barely outpaces Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell
(1986) and Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale
(2006) on the list and falls one spot behind Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb
(1994). It is by all means a footnote in the history of its genre, not really indicative of a tectonic shift in ideology or sound or much at all, really, outside the immediate aesthetic and lyrical inclinations of its two creators.
, ultimately neglected though it may be, also has a lot going for it. Much of the album’s charm lies in its intangible qualities: not its rapping, necessarily, or the production, but the way these two bounce off each other and the spaces created between them. Rappers Ruck and Rock are both strong, businesslike rappers, impressive but almost never exhilarating. Their production is muted and spare, only occasionally grasping at the heights reached by fellow 1996 releases ATLiens
. What makes the whole thing work is the interestingly paradoxical aesthetic carved out by all those involved. The rhymes go typically “hard” (“Watch the nine millimeter brain beater / You won’t be beefin’ and your heart won’t be beatin’ neither”) but the beats, packed as they are with ambient keyboards and smooth basslines, go interestingly “soft”.
This is an aesthetic previously explored by Heltah Skeltah affiliates Black Moon on their single “Reality” (1994), one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the mid-’90s, in which chants of “Killin’ every nigga in sight” seem both to contend and to beautifully coexist with a yearning and airy musical backdrop. (Interesting tidbit: the guy who produced “Reality” is named William Rosario. One of his projects prior to producing for Black Moon was a 12” EP titled Mood-Vibes
.) On the appropriately-named Nocturnal
, that sensation is stretched to album length, reaching an early peak on the gorgeous single “Therapy,” which enlists R&B obscurity Minia Vojica to gild nervous, confessional verses by the duo.
The track seems like a compressed version of the album as a whole: subtle, unexpectedly beautiful, and with its creative focus aimed at interesting places. Nocturnal
is an album concerned not with sensationalistic portrayals of street life but with what comes before and after; the two rappers recognize this sort of existence not as a set of discrete, unlinked events but as something that just goes
, from when you roll into town shooting to when you arrive home tired, headphones on, sinking away to sleep. “Time keeps on clippin’, see?” Rock raps to his imaginary therapist. He’s right, and the album is better for it. Quickly slipping away from our collective memory though it may be, Nocturnal
seems crucial in its ability to mirror our own motions as human beings: always looking inward, always moving forward.