Noname Makes Hip-Hop Proud on Its 50th Anniversary 

Sundial is a celebration of contradictions that gores sacred cows — sounds like a rap classic all right

Noname (Image: Wikipedia)

While hip-hop as a genre, art form and lifestyle is too great to have been created all in one fated night, it’s been widely determined that we’re celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend because the legendary Kool Herc set off a chain reaction at a party he DJ’d in South Bronx.

Well, he was part of a chain reaction himself if you count his Jamaican upbringing soaking up the culture of soundsystems: street parties dating back to the 1940s where DJs would set up turntables and speakers with a generator in a truck. By the 1950s this may have the first time in history when the disc jockeys themselves were more popular and well-paid than live musicians for social events. With that precedent established, DJ Kool Herc not only spun records at his younger sister’s 1973 birthday bash but cued up two copies of the same record so he could manually loop their drum breaks for extended periods that partygoers could breakdance to or even throw down rhymes over. Just before decade’s end, Sugarhill Gang would take this style to the Top 40 with “Rapper’s Delight” and explode a style so popular with particularly young Black artists and audiences that a decade later, the Grammys’ own performers would be protesting the lack of awards for rap recognition onstage.

Rap would become the most popular genre in the world from the 1990s on; at the very least, Mariah Carey became the first of many non-rapping giants to prove that pop couldn’t live without it, with groups like TLC already storming the charts by straddling R&B and hip-hop, followed by Destiny’s Child, Rihanna, Drake and many others. But Michael Jackson and the New Jack Swing vanguard were recruiting and emulating rappers at the outset of the ‘90s, and at the tail end, pop production was mad for the sounds of Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and the Neptunes bringing anything they touched into the future. By then, rock bands couldn’t resist their rap influences either, incorporating DJs and rapping themselves for better or worse.

But spaces for women — who ruled rap early on with Roxanne Shanté and later Missy Elliott, two of the greatest to do it, along with unsung groundbreakers like MC Lyte, Shazzy and Yo-Yo, pop forces like Salt-N-Pepa and Lil Kim, and cultural icons like Queen Latifah — were shrinking. It wasn’t until Nicki Minaj (whose 2009-2014 reign should really be in the conversation with Biggie, Lil Wayne, etc. as one of the all-time GOAT runs) exploded all of pop and rap with her dizzying technique and charisma and her firebrand successor Cardi B that the industry allowed more than one or two token female rappers to succeed at the same time, and now there’s an all-time wealth of them again: Azealia Banks, Kamaiyah, Young M.A., Princess Nokia, Bali Baby, Rapsody, CupcakKe, Tierra Whack, City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Saweetie, Rico Nasty, Flo Milli, Monaleo, Latto, Asian Doll, GloRilla, personal fave Gloss Up, Ice Spice, Jenn Carter, Sexyy Red, just to name as many as I can think of before breakfast, most of whom have at least one great album or classic song already.

Noname Sundial, Noname, Inc. 2023

Noname is less hit-driven than almost everyone in that above list but it also feels weird to call her album-oriented when her entire output before this weekend consisted of contemplative 2016 mixtape Telefone, her more assertive 2018 “official” debut album Room 25, and some astonishing loosies, like last year’s beaut “Rainforest” or the J. Cole-bodying “Song 33.” In her cerebral, slam-derived way, she’s one of the most confrontational lyricists of this generation, though; no one else in the above list has dared call out fucking Beyoncé, not even Ms. Banks. It might as well be the one who began Room 25 boasting that her “pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”

Which brings us to Sundial, the first Noname full-length in five years and a hell of a 50th birthday present for hip-hop, which, like a new Kendrick Lamar (also called out, same song, more on that in a moment) LP, maximally enriches the genre with its presence as well as tearing it down. Noname’s three discrete works don’t vary that much musically, with their wordy mix of neo-soul, Nuyorican jazz, and academic-minded poetry-rap. But each successive release has gotten tighter and less sleepy; all clock in beneath 35 minutes and yet 31 of Sundial whirl by so much faster and feel so much more aggressive and information-packed, wisely taking cues from Room 25’s frenetic “Blaxploitation” and even Lamar’s self-interrogating Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers.

Most crucially, the musical richness incorporates the gorgeous gospel her absent Chi-Town associate Chance the Rapper used to inject into the landscape, at half the length of an actual Chance project. Ayoni’s melodies turn “Boomboom” and the funky closer “Oblivion” into transcendent highlights while the emcee navigates fresh zigzags in the sideways rhythms, from bossa nova to clattering jazz bass runs to some of the most aggressive waltz time you’ve ever heard on the furious centerpiece “Potentially the Interlude,” matching each spittle-choked bar of “People say they love you but they really love potential / Not the person that’s in front of them but they person they grow into.”

That sets up the scorched-earth “Namesake” with its Latin percussion fills and deep-diving upright bass laying track for a double-time rollercoaster of mic drop after mic drop: “Go, Beyoncé, go / Watch the fighter jet fly high / War machine gets glamorized / We play the game to pass the time,” which also names Rihanna, Kendrick, and herself as complicit in the compromises artists (especially Black women) have to navigate in real time and can’t always come out on the right side. Still, it’s a shock to hear her name names (“I ain’t fuckin’ with the NFL or Jay-Z” gets a special aside she identifies less with) and as detailed a cost-benefit analysis of consumerism and capitalism you’re likely to hear in the 2020s, which includes plenty of self-contention: “It’s a socialism sister / Am I supposed to feel this different? Like my rent’s paid?” Then again, what isn’t a shock here? “First Black president and he the one who bombed us,” “I hope you understand, everybody scams,” “Idolize a white bitch while I rock a toupee,” “You sound like cat piss on popcorn,” “They ain’t fuckin’ with me but I’m fuckin’ with me / I’m that girl, invented the whole world,” jaw-droppers, all of them. She drops more bombs than the first Black president. 

Sundial back cover (Image: Facebook)

The realest trio in the world right now grace “Gospel?” with 2022 indie MVPs $ilkmoney (“Banana mags, send his ass back to the Caucasus mountains / Controlled burns got me forewarned about water fountains” and billy woods (“I’ll never forget the rush of pride / Women ululatin’, men drunk / Strong spirits, duelin’ drums / The calloused thumbs of mbira players”) cataloging the joys and “spoken aggressions” of revolution. She even gets fire out of Common (“My metaphysics ain’t for the Metaverse”), whose 16 bars take the record out. Unfortunately, Jay Electronica’s dogshit verse on “Balloons” doesn’t benefit from any of the surrounding intelligence. Calling Zelenskyy a joke and signing off “Tell ‘em Farrakhan sent me” make the unemployed dunderhead her Professor Griff, I guess. In the grand tradition of Fear of a Black Planet, Hell Hath No Fury and 4:44, Sundial gets an antisemitic bar for spice, although none of those three albums implied the resident bigot’s origin story involved “sawing the family in half” of the married Jewish billionaire he had an affair with.

It’s a preposterous enough troll that I probably wouldn’t want the song any other way, though Electronica can go back to sleep for another decade. If anything it bolsters the strongest point of Noname’s first release after threatening to retire from music completely: “We too can cause harm.” Of course, his Jay-Z-bankrolled presence sinks her purity a little bit; she obviously kept the verse to send the fun police to the burn unit even though it upsets plenty of others.

The best hip-hop contains multitudes and you’ll be pondering over the good and ugly of Sundial all the way to year-end season, where it will deservedly clean up without sacrificing a bar of its precious mess. Here’s to another half-century of brilliant, painful, celebratory, complicated music that leads the world in beats.


 You May Also Like

Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *