Noname forges her own path in hip hop

By DUBRAY KINNEY | April 27, 2017


Nyaomi for The Come Up Show/cc-by-SA-2.0 Noname is Arts Editor Dubray Kinney’s favorite female rapper. Coming from him, that’s high praise.

My favorite female rapper is Noname. Rap is weird like that, where everyone is forced to have a favorite “descriptor” rapper. There’s the best New York rapper, the best female rapper, the best “mumble” rapper, the best fat rapper (although that seems to have changed after the progression went from the Fat Boys to Biggie to Big Pun to Fat Joe).

Maybe Fat Joe killed the idea of the fat rapper, but that’s another topic for another article.

Noname feels removed from the sparking feuds that many “descriptor” rappers engage in. The latter must feud with other rappers that seem to be in the same lane (see: Nicki vs. Remy, Nicki vs. Iggy, Yachty vs. Soulja or even Ja Rule vs. 50 Cent — RIP Ja Rule). Perhaps that’s because she just doesn’t have the fan-power to force that kind of divide, or maybe it’s something different. Maybe it stems from the insanely personal emotions that her music evokes.

Two years ago, Noname was Noname Gypsy, but even though her name changed, her musical content hasn’t really over the past few years. The same woman who stood out as the soulful anchor to Chance the Rapper’s “Lost” is crafting her own sound now, and it still feels vulnerable while remaining adventurous in its execution.

Noname emerged as one of the quieter associates of Chicago’s SaveMoney collective, and the numerous outspoken artists that orbit it.

Everybody knows Chance the Rapper, the group’s de facto leader as well as hyperactive center. Former collaborator Vic Mensa is probably the member that most people are acquainted with due to his barrage of singles released such as, “U Mad” and his great EP from last year There’s Alot Going On (and if you haven’t heard it, listen to “16 Shots” or “Danger”).

From there things get a bit muddy for SaveMoney. Towkio has recently gained more hype (older fans of the group remember him as Tokyo Shawn) as has Joey Purp — who I think is the real standout rapper of the group. Then there’s the bevy of affiliates and collaborators.

These include Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), as well as the sensational Saba who fronts his own collective of artists known as Pivot Gang. There’s also Jamila Woods who released an amazing R&B album last year that everyone should listen to.

Chicago’s rap music scene is one bustling with huge stars now. Rappers like Mick Jenkins have recently ascended from mixtape obscurity into full-fledged albums with label support (though that didn’t exactly make The Healing Component a good album).

In many ways, SaveMoney is a collection of friends in one of the most artistically active cities in the world. It’s a rarity that seemingly every member is supremely talented with multiple tapes and singles under their belts.

However, Noname stands against the grain of the rest of the group and its associates. She isn’t a member of the group but collaborates rather heavily with its members. Her music is danceable, relatable and filled with a depth that makes her songs feel warm.

There’s a vibe when she touches the mic as though she’s just a friend that’s about to freestyle in her living room. Other times, it feels like she’s shouting out of her bedroom window at an uncertain world.

That at-home feeling that she provides is what drew me to her sound in the first place. I heard her for the first time in 2014 in her feature on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, in the song “Lost.”

The sample that she and Chance rap over is close to perfect for the semi-remorseful tone that the song takes. I was floored by the song’s lyrics as well as her unorthodox flow.

I was captivated, and soon afterwards I was scouring SoundCloud and YouTube for any loosies I could find. She had a few singles here and there, but compared to the other members of SaveMoney, she barely had any output at all, focusing mainly on a few features. Those managed to scratch the itch I was looking for (but just barely).

Rumors of her releasing a tape persisted throughout the second half of 2014 as well as most of 2015. My heart dropped when she seemed to deny the existence of her recording anything further in early 2016.

Noname appeared on the Lil B/Chance the Rapper split mixtape, which featured the two rappers freestyling. She contributed a pretty funny feature, commenting on her inability to freestyle on the mixtape’s first track.

Finally, my hopes for a Noname album were answered with the release of Telefone midway though 2016. The album features 10 songs and strong lyricism over beats that make you feel as though you’re lying on your bed.

The opening song, “Yesterday,” comes in with an almost wailing sound that feels strangely calming, before it gives way to a break as Noname’s voice sails over the track: “And I know the money won’t make me whole.”

Another recent success story is frequent collaborator with Noname, Saba — Tahj Malik Chandler from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood — who has recently released his first full-length project. The features from Saba (which harkens back to their collaboration, “Church/Liquor Store” on Saba’s album, which also came out in 2016) and Smino give the album alternative voices which keeps it fresh. Yet, just like with SaveMoney, Noname’s voice is the focus of the entire release, pulling you back into the calming core of the album.

The main thing that keeps me coming back to the album are the lush soundscapes that the songs manage to build in under four minutes of playing time, as well as the imagery that the lyricism evokes.

It’s hard to pick some of my favorite lyrical moments of the album, but some that stuck are Saba’s verse from “Shadow Man” — “Preach, church, tabernacle, Tallahassee sunshine/Southern is my bloodline we know it’ll come time... to go” — and the poignant chorus to “Casket Pretty,” which speaks on death in Noname’s native Chicago.

Key songs to listen to from the album include “Shadow Man,” “Diddy Bop,” “Forever” and “Yesterday.” The entire album is worth a listen though, especially if you’re into alternative hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest or The Pharcyde. Also a good listen if you’re into other rappers from Chicago like Mick Jenkins or Smino.

The album stood out in 2016, which featured many albums that were simply amazing (as can be seen in the three lists that we at N-L Arts made a few months ago). It was truly the album that separated Noname from not only some of my favorite female rappers — such as Kate Tempest, Kamaiyah or The Last Artful, Dodgr — but also cemented her into one of my top-ten contemporary rappers.

Since the release of Telefone,Noname has made appearances on a few tracks including the final song of Smino’s album, “Amphetamine” (produced by Baltimore’s own j. robb, make sure to check him out).

Following the album’s release, Noname’s profile raised quickly with her headlining tour finally hitting Baltimore two weeks ago.

Ram’s Head was filled with fans of all ages, although it was mostly people in their early 20s, as well as many teens. Noname had come a long way in a short time, and I was more than surprised to see how many fans she had managed to gain in the past few years.

She came out to a guided chant of her name, her backing band standing by, ready to go right into the first song. The vibe of the performance that followed felt somewhat like gospel, which appears to be a strong influence on Noname’s sound. Yet it brought that “friend-who-can-rap-pretty-well” aesthetic and sensibility to the stage too.

She banged through each song in quick succession with one of the show’s highlights being her performance of “Lost.” The backing band gave the song a different flavor that made the Ram’s Head feel more like a Holy Roller church as the crowd sang the song’s lyrics with Noname. The only downside to this rendition was that it made it harder to listen to the original for me.

“It’s almost like I know her!” said the woman next to me, and I had to agree. She had only been on the stage for about 20 minutes, but the feeling of seeing her at such a large venue and absolutely killing it was as though a friend had finally made it to the next level.

My main criticism of the concert was how quick it felt. It’s mostly down to Noname not having very much material that her set clocked in at around 45 minutes to an hour. That might not seem that short to many people, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by some insanely long concerts recently.

That said, Noname finished her set and came out to a second sea of chants to give a nice quiet encore that the crowd sang along with.

The audience cheered again as she left the stage, and the show came to an end.

Noname’s music feels like it transcends a lot of the crap that smudges up the edges of rap. She falls into a similar box that Isaiah Rashad and Chance do, in that they divorce themselves from most of the conversations that surround rap music to create songs that are introspective and personable. People on the lookout for rappers to watch should take note of Noname.

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