Noname is the best female rapper in hip hop right now. She may be the best technical female rapper in terms of lyricism and flow (which I define as your ability to rap like another instrument on the beat rather than a competing force) in a decade. She might also be a top 5 rapper out right now*. Her mixtape Telefone dropped in 2016 and delivered one of the most complete projects of the year. She’s done features for her fellow Midwestern up and comers Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Saba and Smino and has routinely stolen the show on their songs. She was also excluded from both the 2016 and 2017 XXL Freshman class as well as nowhere to be seen when BET announced their nominees for the Best Female Hip Hop Artist award despite dropping a notebook’s worth of significantly better verses over features and an album than the likes of Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj or Young M.A. Like her accidental counterpart Chance the Rapper, Noname is also an independent artist who has refused to sign her art and soul to a label which I would suspect has something to do with her lack of industry recognition.
Why am I telling y’all this? Because you should be listening to Noname if you’re not already along with a cadre of other young Midwest rappers. More than just a technically sound rapper whose talent can hang with the fellas whose flow will remind you of an old school Def Jam Poetry performance, Noname’s lyrics create the most impact. Her flow has the soft power of a spoken word piece and the words she chooses come across with the depth of one as well. Which makes sense because Noname was a spoken word artist growing up in Chicago before developing her talent as a rapper at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago where she crossed paths with other young Chicago musicians like Saba, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Donnie Trumpet.
Like many of the artists I’ve named in association to her, Noname says “woke” things casually in her music. Unlike artists like Kendrick Lamar for example who make albums with overarching racial themes to address the experience of black people in America, Noname and her counterparts drop lines or verses that make you pause the song and contemplate the white patriarchal power structure around you. A verse will be about her own life and experiences but the intellect with which she sees her own life events force you to see and hear her story but also beyond her story, and what makes her experience the way it is. On “Yesterday” Noname recounts her granny’s funeral and advice she was given:
Fill the lining in the pine box, my granny fill the time slot
“Don’t grow up too soon
Don’t blow the candles out
Don’t let them cops get you”
My granny almost Sparrow I can see the wings
The choir sings
And la da di la di da da da, dah
Only he can save my sou
She didn’t make a song about police brutality or the African-American tradition of elders passing on knowledge to the youth on how to be black and alive in America, Noname casually threw out the advice from her grandmother. Almost a quiet nod to other black people, a line that can be felt deeply by those who have lived that experience and would be met with a puzzling look from everybody on the outside. Earlier on that that same song she makes a casual remark about the nature of club dress codes and their biases against black people as she says “I only wear tennis shoes to clubs with dress codes ‘cause fuck they clubs.” To a listener it’s just a casual line about bucking authority, but to the black listener, the audience her music is aimed at, it is a remark about a feeling that we have all experienced or seen as the dress code is enforced as soon as our turn hits in line. Noname with her clout as a rapper now can break those dress codes she knows are intended to discriminate against her and people who look like her “cause fuck they clubs!”
What comes through in Noname’s art is not that she wants to educate and make songs about the black experience, but that she is a black woman speaking on her life in an educated enough way to see the larger patterns of oppression that are a part of her experiences. She isn’t taking us on her journey to self-discovery like recent Kendrick Lamar albums, so much as her recounting her own stories through an already aware lens. True to black women, Noname already has the answers if anybody would listen up. Bars on gentrification, consumerism, and the school to prison pipeline without the usual weight of conscious music wrapped in tales of granny, momma and her friends, and that’s just on her average feature. She paints pictures with her words like the spoken word poet she is and alludes frequently to experiences special to growing up black and aware.
In 2004 on his debut song Kanye West said “What if somebody from the Chi’ that was ill got a deal on the hottest rap label around? But he wasn’t talkin about coke and birds it was more like spoken word, except he’s really puttin it down?”
We’ve often said the “Old Kanye” is gone. Well he’s back. At least the spirit of that young soulful nigga from Chicago is back. The children of Kanye are bursting out of the Midwest, a crop of young emcees that are mostly unsigned to labels who are really putting it down, except it’s not about coke and birds but more like spoken word. People have often compared Chance the Rapper to Kanye West, calling him the second coming, the heir to that soulful throne, but he isn’t alone. The princess of that great Yeezus kingdom is Noname. The knights are Smino (of St. Louis), Saba, Vic Mensa, Monte Booker and Mick Jenkins. You miss the old Kanye? Check out the heirs to his musical legacy.
I’ve left some Apple Music links below with both a Noname playlist and a “More Like Spoken Word” playlist so y’all can hear what I’ve been hearing and get hip:
*Before you ask, in no order it’s Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples, Noname and Young Thug.
“They sold prison the way they pipeline, systematically lifeline erase all niggas, they so bulletproof from the law. Law abiding citizen shot, Willie Lynch do crack now. Made the new letters shiny, now we pray King Kunta.”
“They gentrified your neighborhood no need for cops, watch. Look at the yoga pants, coffee shops and yogurt stands. Cosumersim, holy land. And on the other hand my momma land…
It look like funeral home, church, church, liquor store, corner store, dreadhead, deadly…”
-Noname, featured on Saba’s Church/Liquor Store
“Mississippi vagabond, granny gon turn up in her grave. You said my granny really was a slave for this? All your incompleted similes and pages ripped? You know they whipped us niggas, how you afraid to rap it? You went to heaven after so we could free them now. Ain’t no ocean floor when you can be a Yeezus now.”
-Noname, Reality Check