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“Escapism is better livin’ than this,” Noname chants on the second song from her new album, Sundial, adding, “Better be honest, baby / We better when we admit.” This juxtaposition is the crux of Noname’s political beliefs, for better or worse. Sure, it exemplifies the beating heart at the center of Sundial‘s intricate web of incisive social commentary and cutting self-recrimination, but it also captures who Noname is as an artist, and ultimately as a human being.
This is the Chicago rapper who first rose to prominence on a wave of support from fellow Chicago rising stars like Chance The Rapper and Saba, only to threaten multiple times to leave the music industry behind entirely. She changed her original name from Noname Gypsy upon learning one of the more negative interpretations of the second half of her nome de guerre. But she wasn’t above sparring with North Carolina fan favorite J. Cole when he seemingly called out her prickly online demeanor in his 2021 throwaway “Snow On Tha Bluff.”
She’s quick to call out Black celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé for embracing the master’s tools in the pursuit of dismantling the master’s house — even here, where she critiques them in the song “Namesake” — but just as swift to refuse to apologize for including a potentially offensive guest MC in Jay Electronica on “Balloons.” She, like many, is a living contradiction, a person whose impulses clash with her beliefs, who falls short of her own standards, but pursues progress over perfection as often as she can.
Throughout Sundial‘s 11 tracks, she excavates and explicates this idea in ways that often seem just as paradoxical as her personality. The production, provided by a list of longtime collaborators and jazz revivalist like Daoud, Slimwav, and Yussef Dayes, offers lullaby-like coos and chords, with soothing strains more suggestive of a cozy night in with a mug of hot chocolate and romance fantasy than fiery anti-capitalist diatribes. Likewise, Noname’s singsong delivery and poetic pen maneuvers hide the points and edges of the acid-dipped darts and daggers deliberately placed across these delicate soundscapes like intellectual booby traps.
The softness of the sounds lulls listeners into sedate comfort before pricking and prodding them to wakefulness like the pea did to the princess. So, when Noname snips, “You could squabble in the comments, bitch, you are a comet,” on “Afro Futurism,” the dualism couldn’t be clearer. She has to jolt her listeners every so often so they might consider the words rather than let them wash over them. A quote that springs to mind comes from an equally enigmatic and controversial woman in rap, Lauryn Hill, via her verse from The Fugees’ “Zealots”: “And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a ‘motherfucker’ so you ignorant niggas hear me.”
That’s why it’s certainly worth considering that Jay Electronica is far from the first or worst rapper to embrace the teachings of the Nation of Islam or the Five-Percent Nation in his rhymes — or why Noname should receive a far greater backlash than any number of others who’ve featured such subject matter throughout rap’s 50 years of existence. Or that Noname, despite embodying so many of the attributes “real hip-hop heads” claim they prefer in women rappers over the more aggressively sexualized postures of MCs like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, that she receives no more support from those hip-hop heads than the women they pit her against.
Noname considers it not just her job but her duty to point out these discrepancies — even when it makes her the villain in her own story. She’s quick to accept that label herself here from the outset; on album opener “Black Mirror,” she calls herself a contrarian. She’s an avowed socialist/anarchist who must embrace some of the principles of a capitalist system to survive as an artist and continue her liberation efforts such as Noname’s Book Club, which sends such texts to inmates (which they are often barred from receiving).
And while many of her choices can be off-putting, such as including the aforementioned Jay Elec or jotting off cynical-seeming dismissals of perhaps sincere inquiries on Twitter, or rhyming in that off-kilter spoken-word flow which isn’t likely to resonate with the folks who need to hear her message most, it’s all honest. Noname herself has already told us; more than anything else, it’s better to be true than to be loved. Ironically, that’s why she’s so beloved in the first place.
Sundial is out now via Noname, Inc. / AWAL Recordings. You can get it here.