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How Nicolette's ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ mapped the future of electronic songwriting

On 1996's ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’, Scottish singer, songwriter and producer Nicolette worked alongside 4Hero’s Dego, Plaid, Alec Empire and Felix to create an album that mixed jungle, trip-hop, industrial techno and avant-pop into a singular work full of sharp, incisive lyricism. Ben Cardew explores the legacy of the album, and its vision for the future of electronic music

In the modern world, it seems sadly inevitable that any female singer who experiments with dance beats will, at some point, be compared to Björk. But the Icelandic artist wasn’t the first singer to align their avant-garde electronic production with proper songs; back in 1992, Scottish musician Nicolette released ‘Now Is Early', a dazzling collection of electronic soul music, produced by legendary hardcore act Shut Up And Dance, who also released it on their eponymous label. 

The record, a connection of proto-jungle beats, bittersweet songwriting, and Nicolette’s gorgeously lustrous voice, like Bessie Smith raving, went on to become a cult classic, despite Nicolette’s initial misgivings about the pairing.

“I was looking for some hard-edged production to balance my sound, and in the end, the two things — their beats and my melodies — have worked closely together,” she told Select magazine. “But not too close.” 

The record earned Nicolette a small but devoted fan base that included Massive Attack, who invited her to sing on two songs on their second album, ‘Protection’: ‘Three’ and ‘Sly’, with the latter released as a single. With the wind behind her, Nicolette signed to Gilles Peterson’s cult label, Talkin’ Loud, which released her second album, ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’, in 1996.

Of the first two Nicolette albums (a new one is due out soon), it tends to be ‘Now Is Early’ that gets the praise. And deservedly so: ‘Now Is Early’ is jungle avant la lettre, an incredibly forward-looking fusion of musical styles that preceded Goldie’s ‘Inner City Life’ by two years and Björk’s ‘Debut’ by one. ‘Now Is Early’ rivals A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘28 Gun Bad Boy’ for the title of the first ever jungle album, and is almost certainly the first jazz / jungle crossover, bringing sophisticated songwriting to a hardcore scene that was still bugging out to SL2’s ‘On A Ragga Tip.’

And yet ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ can be considered the pinnacle of Nicolette’s work, a sprawling dance / pop / experimental jungle opus that still sounds box-fresh today in a way that ‘Now Is Early’ doesn’t quite live up to. ‘Now Is Early’ was an underground album, brilliant in its own way, but perhaps slightly limited in its execution, the work of a gifted production duo and an exceptional singer / songwriter. ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ was the expansion of the ‘Now Is Early’ template, a technicolor explosion to the moody monochrome of Nicolette’s first long-player.

Nicollete gold

“This is seditious songwriting that can sit alongside any ’90s rock act you might care to mention, treating the listener like an intelligent being rather than a dance-motivated automaton.”

Much like Björk’s transition from ‘Debut’ to ‘Post’, ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ saw Nicolette invite an impressively varied range of producers to work with her, including 4hero’s cerebral drum & bass don Dego, proto-IDM duo Plaid, Digital Hardcore founder Alec Empire, and Felix, the British producer who had enjoyed a massive chart hit in 1992 with the progressive house anthem ‘Don’t You Want Me’, while Nicolette herself produced four tracks. 

This may sound like a motley crew of contrasting talents, but Nicolette’s instincts proved faultless, and the album hangs together brilliantly, the singer’s peerless voice and unusual melodic traits cementing the union. ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ is a wonderfully adventurous album, alive with the power and possibility of a dance music scene that was mutating into 1,000 niches before our very eyes. Yet the record never feels difficult or strained, with its 62 minutes suggesting a well-assembled playlist in today’s landscape of flattened generic walls.

You can, perhaps, best hear the expansive leap from ‘Now Is Early’ to ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ on ‘No Government’, a song that features on both albums. The ‘Now Is Early’ version of the song is essentially Nicolette singing over the same Lou Donaldson ‘Pot Belly’ sample that A Tribe Called Quest used on ‘If The Papes Come', released in 1990 as a B-side to ‘Can I Kick It?’. It’s a fine track, very elegant in its simplicity, but it feels a little undercooked when compared to the dexterous and dynamic version found on ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head,’ which combines West Asian-sounding strings with military snare drums, juddering electronics, and a thunderous four-four beat.

Indeed, the production as a whole on ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ is a fearsomely eclectic beast. The album is topped and tailed by ‘Don't Be Afraid’ and ‘Don't Be Ashamed (Don't Be Afraid Part II)’, in which Nicolette whips up a worm’s nest of abstract electronic squiggles; Dego’s two productions, ‘Song For Europe’ and ‘Just To Say Peace And Love,’ are gorgeously jazzy jungle numbers, which point toward the gilded beats that 4hero would employ on their 1998 album ‘Two Pages’; Felix’s ‘Heaven Sent’ and Nicolette’s own ‘Always’ skirt around boom-bap hip-hop; ‘Judgement Day’ is a solo piano number; and Plaid’s productions use everything from church organ drone to angry 303s, passing by apocalyptic trumpets and IDM beats. 

Most shockingly, Alec Empire’s two contributions to the album sport the industrial toughness of his Digital Hardcore label. ‘Nervous’ and ‘Nightmare’ are perhaps the best, if by no means the only, moments of digital fury on a record that is genuinely ferocious at times, subverting the lazy — and yet annoyingly prevalent — idea that a female singer plus modish beats equates to a relaxed listen. The year of the album’s release and Nicolette’s connection to Massive Attack led some listeners to label the album as trip-hop. But, if so, Nicolette’s work is far closer to Tricky’s dark, claustrophobic imagination than the filmic pop of the Sneaker Pimps or Morcheeba.

Nicollete blue

Nicolette’s lyrics, too, are far from the dippy pop clichés of bucket-scraping trip-hop. ‘No Government’ is an exploration of the societal ideas behind anarchy that lands just on the right side of idealism; ‘Nightmare’ sees Nicolette explode the empty clichés of the perfect wife — “I wore pretty earrings and laughed at bad jokes / to make me powerful” — while ‘You Are Heaven Sent’ subverts its idealistic title with a brilliant payoff: “You are heaven sent / So why be so unkind?” This is seditious songwriting that can sit alongside any ’90s rock act you might care to mention, treating the listener like an intelligent being rather than a dance-motivated automaton.

‘You Are Heaven Sent’ also includes one of Nicolette’s very best vocal performances, on an album that is full of them. Her voice, on the whole, sounds sleepy and feline, but she exerts an incredible control over her vocal cords, adding the tiniest touch of vibrato for dramatic effect when the moment is apposite. You can see why Massive Attack were drawn toward Nicolette — her hushed tones and precise power are perfect for their hip-hop / reggae fusion. But she is also capable of singing brilliantly against type, when taking on the almost a-musical chord changes of ‘We Never Know,’ or riding high against the distorted drillcore of ‘Nervous.’  

‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ was only a moderate chart hit in the UK despite Talkin’ Loud’s deep pockets, and it would be nine years until Nicolette released another album, 2005’s ‘Life Loves Us’. In the interim, she recorded her acclaimed ‘DJ-Kicks’ compilation, a record whose intrepid track listing — from Doc Scott to Mike Flowers Pops — was in keeping with the rampant adventurism of ‘Let No-One...’ Nicolette’s ‘DJ-Kicks’ remains widely available, but the same, sadly, can’t be said for either ‘Now Is Early’ or ‘Let No-One...',which are not currently available to stream.

This is a terrible missed opportunity. Nicolette may not have been the biggest star of the ’90s, but her mixture of jungle beats and intelligent songwriting preceded PinkPantheress by three decades, while the acute personal preoccupations of ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ (itself a very 2022 title) feel like an apt reflection of a world of modern angst. ‘Dreamy’ is a word frequently applied to Nicolette’s music, but on this album it is largely the nightmares that win through.

In 1996, an NME review joked that ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ was the album of the year — “The year 2006, that is”. Doubtlessly at the time it seemed bold, an outlandish bet on where music was going. But in 2022 — 26 years after its release — ‘Let No-One Live Rent Free In Your Head’ still feels like the future, albeit one wrapped up in the nervous reality of the present.