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Noname’s evolution into a hip hop revolutionary

Noname’s voice sounds like a velvet-wrapped iron fist as she jumps between free-associative vignettes that detail her rich emotional inner world and her political world view in her latest album ‘Sundial’

Noname on stage at Electric Forest 2018, US.
Noname on stage at Electric Forest 2018, US. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2016, Fatimah Nyeema Warner—the rapper better known as Noname—dropped her debut mixtape, Telefone, to critical acclaim. At the time, Noname was one of several prodigious Chicago talents in the orbit of Chance the Rapper, and Telefone’s deeply intimate portrayals of black femininity and black suffering played out over richly textured neo-soul that had been sharing notes with the psychedelic soul of Chance’s Acid Rap. Having established herself as one of rap’s most exciting new voices, she then signalled her ambiguity over the whole rap thing, suggesting on Facebook that it might be her final release. It wasn’t.

Two years later, she returned with Room 25, a transcendent coming-of-age narrative set to sublime jazz and soul. Noname’s free-wheeling verses—delivered in a silky smooth flow that owes as much to her past as a slam poet as to hip hop convention—tackled subjects as diverse as America’s broken politics, personal struggles with addiction, and erotic Caribbean fantasies. “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” she rapped in the opener, Self, a perfect encapsulation of the erudition and laugh-out-loud wit that made the album an instant classic. It featured on several albums of the year lists, ranking No.7 on the alternative newsweekly Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop poll.

Noname spent the next few months touring, even appearing on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show. But instead of enjoying her success, the rapper became increasingly disenchanted by the music industry. Of particular concern was the overwhelming whiteness of the crowds at her shows, and the curious dynamic of performing black pain in service of white voyeurism. She pulled back from rap, focusing her attention on activism and further education in radical politics.

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In July 2019, she started the Noname Book Club, where members discuss left-wing anti-capitalist books like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy Of The Oppressed, curate titles to donate to the incarcerated, and help run the club’s Radical Hood Library in Los Angeles. Throughout, she kept hinting on social media that she might be done with music for good. She wasn’t.

In one sense, it feels like Sundial, Noname’s first album in five years, picks up where Room 25 left off. The production is a familiar blend of chromatic jazz, neon soul, bossa nova and boom-bap hip hop, situating her music in the same continuum as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. Noname’s voice still sounds like a velvet-wrapped iron fist as she jumps between free-associative vignettes that detail her rich emotional inner world and her political world view. But the scope of the rapper’s ambition here is much bigger, her politics much more fleshed out, her honey-smooth flow more urgent and insistent. Noname sees contemporary hip hop as a revolution stalled, co-opted by white capital and sabotaged by black liberalism. With Sundial, she resurrects the idea of rap as the revolutionary spectre that haunts white America.

In Namesake, she sets fire to the sacred cows of American liberalism and contemporary hip hop with the professional flourish of a veteran arsonist. “Dream about revolution, air pollution/ Same solution, socialism,” she raps, laying out her thesis for a withdrawal from mainstream white politics and society while drawing lines between the oppression of black Americans and the US war machine. “I ain’t fuckin’ with the NFL or JAY-Z/ Propaganda for the military complex,” she rhymes, with other black icons like Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar also coming in for some fire. “The same gun that shot Lil Terry out west/ The same gun that shot Samir in the West Bank.”

In Balloons, which also features a controversial anti-Volodymyr Zelenskyy verse from the problematic Jay Electronica, she returns to the idea of white fan voyeurism (“Fascinated with mourning, they hope the trauma destroy her”), while Hold Me Down takes aim at what she perceives as the black community’s lack of introspection (“won’t be a self-critic, burn up our whole village / That wasn’t us, that was colonialism”) and former US president Barack Obama.

These political theses are interspersed with deeply personal cuts like the spiteful Toxic—aimed at an ex—and the introspective self-criticism of Beauty Supply. Over its dense 11 tracks, Sundial showcases Noname’s evolution into a hip hop revolutionary with a philosophical bent and a keenly introspective and honest eye. Or, as she puts it in the opener, Black Mirror, “She’s a shadow walker, moon stalker, Black author/ Librarian, contrarian.” She’s all of them, and more.

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Last month also saw the release of Voir Dire, a surprise collaboration between Earl Sweatshirt and crate-digging psych-hop producer The Alchemist. It’s a curious mix, Sweatshirt’s psychological-horror murk and The Alchemist’s dreamy, luxurious ear candy, but it works incredibly well. The producer’s jazzy keys and funk loops brighten up the atmosphere a little but like lamplight in the fog, they leave enough swirling shadows for Sweatshirt’s cryptic, abstract and yet deeply personal bars about depression, his fears about fatherhood, and the stench of moral corruption that pervades post-Trump America. It’s a stunningly elegant piece of art-rap, one that requires multiple deep listens to unpack its complexity.

Sure, the high priests of contemporary rap may be “sell-out” billionaires in bed with the systems and institutions they once railed against. Sure, in the public imagination, the hyper-masculine, hyper-consumerist vision of gangsta rap and its progeny may have muscled out hip hop’s more thoughtful and revolutionary interpretations. But as Voir Dire and Sundial show, there are still plenty of artists—and fans—who are committed to these alternative ideals of hip hop, and they are constantly pushing the genre’s boundaries into newer, more adventurous, more radical spaces.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.


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