‘She’s a shadow walker, moon stalker, Black author, librarian, contrarian.” Noname’s second album starts with this act of self-definition, and it’s a decent summing up of an astonishing rapper whose erudition and political acumen is charged up by her sense of wonder. Initially a performance poet, she emerged last decade alongside Chicago peers such as Chance the Rapper, Saba and Smino, all making creative, neo soul-inflected hip-hop in parallel to the city’s drill rap and jazz scenes. Her debut 2016 mixtape Telefone was a poignant study of family and community, its romances and character studies menaced by police brutality and generational trauma.
Her study of the forces ranged against Black people intensified on her 2018 debut album Room 25: “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism” summed up her demotic, funny, astute wordplay in one line. The track Blaxploitation accused Hillary Clinton of minstrelsy in her courting of Black voters (complete with mini hot sauce kept in her handbag), and Noname suggested the latter instead situate themselves outside white culture: “When we cool, they cool, we die as coon / We supafly indigenous, now hop to the moon.” (She soon started a book club focusing on radical Black thought.)
All those issues remain very much live on her second album, Sundial. Having nearly quit music in 2019 because of her frustration at playing to predominantly white fans, Noname turns those feelings into a verse on Balloons, facing a crowd “fascinated with mourning, they hope the trauma destroy her”. Again she advocates for rejecting mainstream white society and politics: “Off the grid we just built a community garden / Off the grid you can be martian round here.”; “I room with a falcon / the tree spider taught me accounting”. On the infectious Boomboom, sex is another route to freedom, Noname rapping post-coitally: “I faded the noise, I echo infinity joy / Build and destroy, build and rebuild.” Sundial’s relatively uncomplicated backings, which encompass bossa nova, jazz, soul and boom-bap hip-hop, foreground her lyrics and comfily situate her in the best of recent Black musical history, continuing an axis onward from Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Common (who appears here).
But she also wonders if escapism is a cop-out, and isn’t scared to spread around the culpability for social discord. With her eyebrow audibly arched, on Hold Me Down she turns to Black people who she perceives as denying their agency amid white supremacy: “Won’t be a self-critic, burn up our whole village / That wasn’t us, that was colonialism!” Her point isn’t that racism isn’t real, but that a life lived in relation to whiteness is a dismal one, and coaxes: “We better when we admit we too can cause harm / We really should link arms / That already take arms”. Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar get called out for their involvement with the Super Bowl, in Noname’s eyes an event that glorifies the US military. Drone-happy Barack Obama gets jabbed too – “first Black president, and he the one who bombed us” – and while it’s not clear who it’s aimed at, you feel for whoever receives the album’s supreme diss: “You sound like cat piss on popcorn.”
This is all further complicated and humanised by admissions of Noname’s own fallibility, from her decision to play the “sanitised” Coachella to wearing a weave instead of her natural hair. Throughout Sundial she switches between the first and third person, judging herself from new angles. The two perspectives combine powerfully on Beauty Supply: “I just wanna be the love of my life / Set aside my own standard and really demand hers.”
As if to further underline her contrarian status, having castigated the US war machine on Namesake, she also includes a guest verse on Balloons from Jay Electronica with chestbeating (if admittedly fantastical) martial-religious lyrics featuring AK-47s, swords, enemy lines and more. The pairing provoked controversy when it was announced and his pro-Farrakhan, anti-Zelenskiy lines will be more controversial still, but he certainly shares Noname’s desire to live off the mainstream thought-grid: “The imams and the rabbis and the pope incidentally couldn’t stop my boca from quoting quotes from the senseis,” he raps. A more nuanced and affecting analysis of revolution comes from another guest, Billy Woods, who essays the glamour of regime change as witnessed in 1980s Zimbabwe. He watches a leader “stinking of death” and acknowledges how revolutions pall (as this one did under Mugabe), but writes poetic reportage about this mass of hopeful Black humanity: “Women ululating, men drunk / Strong spirits, duelling drums / The calloused thumbs of mbira players / The ride home at dusk”.
Noname’s chorus on the final song, Oblivion, may read as a nihilist conclusion – “spinning into oblivion / motherfucker I don’t care” – but her delivery is wry and breezy, and other pronouncements are simultaneously half-full and half-empty: “Wherever Black people sleep, pray for them”; “The sky says we’re still alive.” In a cultural climate that prefers single rather than multiple meanings, you sense some listeners will find Sundial too ethically complex and contrary. Hopefully many more will flock to Noname, who brings piercing intellect and joie de vivre to tough questions. A librarian, yes, but also a moon stalker.
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