Noname delivers highlight mixtape of 2016

A Hip-Hop Head’s Lullaby

Jackson Croy, Managing Editor
Originally published January 26, 2017

To call Noname a Chance the Rapper protege is to call an oak an acorn. Prior to this summer, Noname’s (formerly Noname Gypsy’s) only verses were features on Chance songs. No one expected much from the shy and soft-spoken Chicago girl.

The album begins with the same shyness we knew on the opening track “Yesterday,” but it seems that Noname opens up to the listener. She lets her guard down, and she shares her woes and wonders with us.

Lyricism is again proven as an art form on this record. Noname’s delivery — which seems lackluster at first — with time gives itself away as intimate and subtle, adds beautiful juxtaposition with the brief, potent couplets that are stuffed with some of the smartest wordplay this side of 1999.

On “Casket Pretty” (the title of which references the haunting manner in which postmortem individuals look beautiful in their casket), she parallels storybook children’s fears with modern ones: “And I’m afraid of the dark — blue and the white // badges and pistols rejoice in the night”

Noname’s flow is as sweet and natural as a lullaby. Her verses seem to pour from her without any effort, and are almost conversational. There is no hint of rage in her voice — only a teary-eyed solemnity. The first listen might sound like Noname couldn’t be bothered to care about what she says, but as you replay the record it might seem more like ‘effortless’ is the right word. Her raps are bleak, but they leave you wondering if the world isn’t quite the same.

In a time where anti-police sentiments can almost be used as a syllabic crutch in rap, Noname provides a stirring alternative perspective for hip-hop fans. Where her male contemporaries speak of fallen friends and brothers, she speaks a view only a woman could have; one of a mother. On “Casket Pretty” the symbolic image of “babies in suits” reminds us that every victim (of gang violence and police violence alike) is someone’s baby. Even as stories of senseless violence become commonplace, each is also the story of a mother’s loss.

The album will challenge fans of casual “happy rap” to dig a little deeper; to see and feel the harsh realities even when they’re spoken so softly. “Bye Bye Baby” — a wistful love song on an unlikely subject — comes across as a warm lullaby. However, it’s not that Noname’s comforting demeanor dulls her cutting lyrics. Instead, she optimistically pads what we don’t want to hear — the sad, dark message — with what we do want to hear — her voice.

Unlike her contemporaries, Noname isn’t militant. The fire and aggression heard on songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” or Beyonce’s “Formation” aren’t present here, her weapon of choice is rhetoric. The monotonous, flat — dull even, at first listen — vocals across the project show that Noname won’t raise her voice. Her fist, maybe.

The features are less than impressive, save for a couple, but that’s only because Noname shines so well both stylistically and verbally. Standouts include up-and-coming R&B singer Ravyn Lenae’s vocal additions on the hook of “Forever” and, more prominently, Smino’s feature on “Shadow Man.” Smino raps of playing Metro Boomin’ at his funeral; a lighthearted and comedic address to his death, complementing the album’s somehow both desolate and optimistic look at the world.

To ignore the musical prowess demonstrated in the production on this album would be a mortal sin. Producers Cam O’bi, Phoelix and Saba as well as a couple of guests handle all the instrumentation on this album. The beats are beautiful to say the least. Modern yet nostalgic, experimental yet catchy, precise yet lackadaisical. The drum grooves are so crisp they could cut glass, and the electric piano is bright enough to be a point of focus but not so bright as to distract from the lyrics. Choir samples are pitched up on “Yesterday,” creating a sound that recalls the singing children on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” which in itself is nostalgic enough to bring a tear to the eye.

An art form birthed in protest has found its Messiah. At equal parts affectionate and revolutionary, Noname articulates an entirely new side of modern hip-hop. If your 2016 favorites included either of the Knowles sisters or Chance the Rapper and this album isn’t in your rotation yet, pinch yourself, because you’re sleeping hard.