Five years since the release of her last album, Noname has finally returned to the hip-hop scene — with a vengeance.
Noname, born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, released her third full-length project, “Sundial,” on Aug. 11 following a tumultuous journey that involved a canceled album and a brief retirement. Best known for her intimate, intelligent lyrics over jazzy production on “Telefone” and “Room 25,” Noname challenges listeners with another album that confronts societal expectations for Black communities and political injustices head-on.
Noname wastes no time reminding the audience of her roles as “a shadow walker, moon stalker, Black author / Librarian, contrarian” in the opening track, “black mirror.” Her recent exploits are as eclectic as she proclaims, be it her longstanding involvement in the Chicago rap scene, her championing of Black literature through the Noname Book Club or her untiring promotion of socialist ideology. She continues to effortlessly weave between issues of structural racism, gender fluidity and online activism before she acknowledges that, of course, “she a rapper too.”
And rap she does. Noname goes on the offensive and tackles a myriad of social issues and fellow musicians, bringing an aggressiveness seldom seen in her previous albums. In “balloons,” Noname questions the consumption and exploitation of Black art by “casual white fans,” who are “fascinated with mourning, they hope the trauma destroy her.”
She calls out fellow Black artists, such as Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, who performed in the Super Bowl, for overlooking the NFL’s association with the U.S. military-industrial complex on “namesake.” Her critiques are at their best in “beauty supply,” where she laments the irony of Black communities basing their own self-image and worth on a fashion industry dominated by white aesthetics.
In between her commentary, Noname exhibits various moments of lucidity and vulnerability. In “potentially the interlude,” she explores how her individuality is compromised by fans looking to project an idealized image of a female rapper, while “toxic” details the reclamation of her sexuality and well-being from caustic partners. Even in “namesake,” Noname leaves room for self-criticism by comparing her performance at Coachella to those of other rappers that she believes pander to white audiences.
Ever the magician, Noname distills an impossibly wide range of motifs into a cohesive album with tight production that closely mirrors her own trajectory as an artist. Even though she uses 13 producers, including long-time Chicago collaborators Saba and Daoud, Noname retains the same general ambiance while molding individual songs to fit her messages. Whereas “black mirror” and “boomboom” harken back to her past bossa nova-infused sounds to begin the album, “beauty supply” and “oblivion” take on a more serious, melancholic sound to match Noname’s anger and passion.
Unfortunately, much of the delicate balance that Noname achieves within the album — passionate yet articulate, unapologetic yet intimate — is irreparably disturbed by her inability to distinguish naysayers from legitimate criticism. Following the release of the track list for “Sundial” in early April, fans quickly questioned her inclusion of Jay Electronica, a highly influential rapper disgraced by his long history of antisemitic remarks.
It is difficult to ignore Noname’s initial response, which simultaneously deflected blame to Electronica and urged dissatisfied listeners to simply stop engaging in her art. It is even more difficult to accept how Noname allows a man who previously fashioned himself as “Jaydolf Spitler, rap Hitler” to deliver a putrid verse attacking the Rothschild family, calling the invasion of Ukraine a hoax, urging listeners to prepare for the start of Armageddon, and praising Louis Farrakhan and endorsing Nation of Islam conspiracy theories.
Noname, whose career is defined by a careful deliberateness in her art, sullies her messages of peace and love by defending the inclusion of hateful drivel in her album. Perhaps, she simply grew defensive after fans attacked someone she has hailed as an inspiration and did not handle the situation as best as she could. Perhaps, she, in the heat of the moment, “did a song wit jay elect to alienate my white fans,” as she proclaimed on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter. Or perhaps, devastatingly, she is willing to conflate antisemitism with anti-capitalism, ruining her own calls to dismantle white supremacy by targeting another marginalized community.
Five years later, Noname leaves us with more questions than answers. Her artistic ability and creative tendencies remain unchanged, and “Sundial” is a natural evolutionary step for an artist who, in overcoming numerous hardships, is hungrier than ever.
Can she stay true to her progressive bona fides? There is hope, but it is incumbent on Noname to reexamine her own priorities and wield the microphone as a force for good, not hatred.