Credit: Vivian Jones

The album opens with a shadow-boxing Black girl, shining blue in the moonlight, with enough to say to write a book! This is Sundial, the new album by Noname. 

She’s an influential female rapper from Chicago, and a founding member of the slam-poetry-to-critical-thought-Soundcloud pipeline. As a fan, I do not associate her art with a brand—but if I had to describe her public persona, I would say she is fiercely pan-African and feminist. 

Sundial was five years in the making. During that hiatus, she built a non-profit, the Noname Book Club, that is radically educating Black people, both free and incarcerated. She released a single, “Rainforest,” that spellbound me with its samba base. And while she’s always been comfortable diverging from a typical rap composition, on her new album she has expounded it into a softer pocket. 

Let’s journey into Noname’s—aka Fatimah Nyeema Warner’s—Sundial

“black mirror” is a choral hum layered with soothing strings. The beat breaks between verses feel ceremonial. Idealistic and ambient, yet dainty on the surface, the song is freeform, rolling in groovy grassroots. Avant-garde centered in the rhythm and blues. The term “socialism sister” made my heart melt. She spits:  

“Like my rent’s paid? The devil dead”

The fight Noname is alluding to resonates. How many of us will become the devil, and how many of us will it take to stop them? But to call something immoral, you should tell the people why. This track dances over the answer. The second verse has gender and race holding hands at white supremacy’s money-laundering tables. There are multiple worlds. Material reality and the various social constructs we believe into reality. Hip-hop, once a counterculture’s subculture, has aged into the mainstream. Rappers literally pull themselves up by the bootstraps, which creates the dissonance of an aesthetic philosophy. Noname wants liberation in this piece, acting as a public service announcer and professional dissenter.  

“Yeah, I’m cute and compassionate

Flakey as a bitch, the witch inside the broom

Motion sick, driftin’ in and out of consciousness like the rappers do

She a rapper too

It was important when Megan Thee Stallion declared she was a rapper, “not no mutha fucking model,” because language is power. In a world where femininity is a prized possession and Black women are disposable, our art becomes meta, in that we must project power instead of holding it. Noname must also reckon with that distortion as a political and pro-Black artist. She is ping-ponging around manifestations, trying to land on some peace. The first track bleeds right into the second, hold me down.”

“I hope you understand, everybody scams”

We are dropped right into a finessing backstory. The track feels like an old-head’s version of love that’s just respectability. The omniscient chimes flickering across the rumble of snare drums blend well with the emergence of a chorus. The thought that Atlanta is a Black-run district and can still succumb to being a police city is heart-wrenching. This album personifies joy while seeing so much evil. 

The third song is “balloons,” featuring Jay Electronica. Noname paints the shadow of her past pseudonyms in the first verse, reminiscing on the freshness of fame and the adrenaline rush of rising out of the mud. Jay Electra’s mid verse wields a typical hip-hop machismo with some Nation of Islam rhetoric sprinkled in, and playfully mystifies his rag-to-riches story by wrapping success in righteousness. Noname’s second verse was politically hollow to me. It felt like she was talking to white people.

Who is she explaining voyeurism to? The slam poetry circuit in Chicago runs on voyeurism, the same place that poetically birthed Noname. Picture the grimiest microphone controllers you know, but they are in high school, spitting trauma poems for snaps. You speak your truth and people score you instantly. In the 90s, niggas came up by battling in ciphers, and now young adults tap dance through literary obstacles to win nothing but local recognition. 

“Analyze the gumption, monopolize the landscape she just another artist selling trauma to her fanbase”

This album’s interiority is different from her previous projects. Telefone was firmly grounded in material reality; it transports listeners sonically and philosophically into the South Side of Chicago. I listen to it when I miss home. Room 25 is a step into a meta-mindfield. In contrast, Sundial is explicitly speaking to an audience. Noname isn’t playing around; she’s striking out. Gumption means shrewd resourcefulness, and public performance is just that. Noname should start ignoring her white demographic because this song is preaching to a hollow choir. 

The hook on “balloons” is circular, melodic, and tenderly sad. The repetition of “hit me back” reads desperate at some points and aggressive at others. The motif of balloons as tears or as sirens is prolific. Sun Ra’s influence is all over this joint! Space is the place where balloons float upwards forever. Outer space is a never-ending blackness, unknown yet accessible to navigate with extreme wealth.

“boomboom” is a bomb dance track! Ayoni’s voice on the hook is inciting, groovy, and romantic. Noname skates into the melody, scatting in jazzy fashion. She pops her consonances, Ayoni’s voice swirls upbeat, and French horns blast for the conclusion. Side effects of this summer bop include whining, twerking, and juking. The bridge of the song is bouncy with immaculate wordplay. 

“W.E.B., stay with the boys

I faded the noise, I echo infinity joy

Build and destroy, build and rebuild

Build and destroy, build and rebuild”

W.E.B. DuBois invented a model for respectability politics with his “Talented Tenth” doctrine, then changed his philosophy later in life, leading him to renounce his U.S. citizenship to live in Ghana. DuBois was a pan-Africanist and, eventually, was rocking with socialism. Other notable African American revolutionaries, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were not rocking with capitalism either. Generational cycles of struggle, when seen in an optimistic light, can be like an echo-chamber of liberating critical thought. This song is political, because pleasure activism is real! Destruction before reform is change, but only with intentionality. Noname repeats the sentiments of staying close together, remembering people’s names, and exploding shit.

“potentially the interlude” is a grating and foreboding piece. The repeated line in the song reminded me of the phrase “young, gifted, and Black.” Exceptional Black children can be treated as commodities because our people were historically valuable. The phrase brings a sense of doom to adulthood. It’s a sentiment of conditional love that has been passed down. Growing up feels like a life sentence in this context. The drums are harsh and abrasive. When Noname says “happy one,” her voice distorts and echoes into the following line. The song is a chant, a feedback loop, and a sullen hymn.  

“People say they love you, but they really love potential

Not the person that’s in front of them, the person you’ll grow into”

On the song “namesake,” Noname hopscotches delicately in a hot mess. She name-drops Jay Z, Rihanna, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, the NBA—and herself. Diss tracks are a part of the culture. It’s not good etiquette to throw someone’s name out there. If there’s a genuine problem, put something conclusive on wax. Noname does the exact opposite. The whole song is evasive. The beat hides the prose almost intentionally. It’s strange, because Noname’s style echoes Kendrick Lamar—yet she’s shading him. Also, she’s dissing Jay Z, like her man’s Jay Electronica isn’t his homie. I can’t find a sense of couthness within the rhapsodic paradox. 

Capitalism is the subject of criticism, and the solution is our accountability, but where’s the love ethic? Once someone falls down the intersectional rabbit hole, how do they get back home? Afrofuturism isn’t painting anti-capitalist pictures, but drafting a body of work that’s abundantly Black. Noname is alienating a lot of Black fandoms, and if she’s going to do so, I would hope she has a thesis. The song’s message is a hollow scapegoat. 

“beauty supply” opens with Noname rapping in a high pitch. The beat is slinky, the saxophone hypnotizing, and the soft vocal runs are dreamy. Beauty supplies are an industry, run for us but not to buy us. It is a place of transformation yet personal policing. It’s a Black internal battle with only physical ramifications. The song’s bedrock is its chilling repetition. Hip-hop needed the song “Toxic” because it perfectly encapsulates these niggas! Noname is holding her breath in distaste, and then expels fire. The song is a ghetto fabulous spectacle. She illustrates the ages-old tale of how a terrible partner can ruin a baddie’s life. Every time she repeats “fuck you,” I feel it harder. 

“afro-futurism” sounds like it’s being pulled through a subway station. Noname softly grumbles against the percussion, while the throbbing background is stiff and clunky. The lyricism was crisp, but the track felt like an interlude. Similarly, I wanted the choir to be sharper on the second to last song “gospel?” When $ilkMoney slid onto the scene discussing the Fugees-FBI connection, I was gagged. I also enjoyed the soft piano breakbeat supporting Billy Wood’s verse. 

“oblivion” is the last song on this almost thirty-two-minute album. Of course, Common popped up to truly complete the work as a Chicago thang. Oblivion can mean unconsciousness or forgiveness. The last line of this body of work: “To oblivion we gon’ dream.” 

Conscious hip-hop (or conscience hip-hop) isn’t profound because it’s anti-capitalist, but due to its artful storytelling. I was taken aback when the album ended because I was just getting immersed in the soundscape. The best songs on the project are interludes, and the ending could be more climactic. The project is missing a sense of adventure, so I don’t consider it a classic like her previous albums. 

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Noname’s use of language is her persona, meaning she never puts on the character of a celebrity. This makes her refreshingly relatable. The thing with commerce and art is that authenticity is a double-edged sword. Words mean things, so audiences rightfully judge an artist based on how they wield their sword. On Jay Electronica’s 2012 song, “Bitches and Drugs,” he refers to himself playfully as “Jaydolf Spitler.” 

Influential artists should not allude to systemic injustices in vain, whether it directly affects a category of people they identify with or not. The first holocaust happened to Black people. In the spring of 1904 in modern-day Namibia, German General Lothar von Trotha of the Second Reich perpetrated genocide against the Indigenous Herero and Nama people. Adolf Hitler’s mentor, Dr. Eugen Fischer, created the medical experiments Nazis would later use in concentration camps against African people. I think it’s wrong to make light of genocide just to flex. 

Anti-Blackness exists simultaneously with antisemitism because not all Jewish people are white and all people are culpable to the influence of white supremacy. Farrakhan is a problematic religious leader. I interpreted Jay’s reference to him on “balloons” as an ode to his personal religious fever, not a glorification of the specific individual. Discussing the Black nationalist religion’s antisemitism, homophobia, or sexism is important, but it is not specifically relevant when discussing Noname’s art. 

Still, on Sundial, Noname shames rap music’s tendency towards trauma porn—yet her work platforms someone who unapologetically uses bigoted language. Being friends with a hoe doesn’t automatically make somebody a hoe. However, the thing with capitalism is that money lies with morals. As an independent artist she intentionally curates her features. The most controversial voice on the album also being on the breakout single means she’s directly lining morally bankrupt pockets.

Sometime in July, Noname responded to her fans’ concerns via tweets. She said: “niggas legit rap about actual murder and sexual assault that they commit in real life and y’all can’t take a jay elect verse? Please drink water and be safe out here [praying hands emoji] i’ll see y’all when my album drop in a few weeks. sending love and prayers.” 

I have listened to NWA songs performing rape culture my entire life and I just recently watched Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, a documentary streaming on Netflix about the history of hip-hop. I learned how Dr. Dre publicly beat hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes. Oppression is systemic and cultural. That public force of misogynoir is rooted in and inflamed by the mass distribution of their rap music. 

That example is not to say anyone is inherently violent, but to exemplify that violent language is connected to reality for a reason. Mystifying the connection between art and real life is a cheap tactic. The ability to turn brutality into beauty can be camp or it can be counter-revolutionary. It can only be a flex if disassociation is the base. Noname isn’t explicitly in the wrong, but I don’t think she’s right. 

Sundial is about cultural storytelling, Black materiality, and generational progress. The music shows us what freedom isn’t and assumes the act of performance will create meaningful answers. 

I’m listening, but still feel like there’s no conclusion in the room.

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 Imani Joseph is studying creative writing and politics at Oberlin College. She works as a museum educator and novelist.

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