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Noname’s Fine Line Show Proved That ‘Pussy Raps and Political Raps’ Are All You Need

Shout outs to anticapitalism, chants of 'Free Palestine,' raps about how Beyoncé supports the military industrial complex—the Chicago rapper's delayed Minneapolis performance had it all.

2:59 PM CST on November 27, 2023

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“Pussy raps and political raps—that's all I got,” Noname confessed during her encore last Wednesday night in Minneapolis, and of course she was joking. A little. There was plenty of room for self-questioning scrutiny and tentative professions of hope and many other elements of the ol’ human condition tucked away in the 32-year-old Chicago rapper’s lyrics during her crisp 60-minute set at the Fine Line. 

Even so, nothing wrong with sticking to those two universal topics. Pussy and politics cover so much ground, after all, what’s even left to rap about? (Let’s fold “dick” in with pussy for the sake of argument here.) Money? Only if you count the line “It's fuck they money, I'ma say it every song/Until the revolution come and all the feds start runnin',” from a song (“Rainforest”) that Noname introduced by saying “I feel like there are some anticapitalists in here.” And from the raucous, affirmative response, it felt like there were. Or at least, let’s say, aspiring anticapitalists.

The rapper who, let’s be clear up front, had much more to say about politics than sex strode onstage introducing herself in verse as “a shadow walker, moon stalker/Black author/Librarian, contrarian” from “Black Mirror,” the opening track on her latest album, sundial. A playful performer for all the occasional dead-seriousness of her music, she bopped about in a cute lime-green patterned dress with long braids trailing down from underneath a ball cap, large expressive eyes accentuating the nuances of her verse as a three-piece band and two back-up singers recreated the track’s lite jazz feel live. 

The overall musical effect was to duplicate the hazy vibe of sundial (Noname performed all but one of its 11 tracks), if a bit more loosely. Released after she mused publicly about retiring from rap for good, the album jousts with pessimism, ambivalence, even careerism, and it’s anchored, for good and bad, by the kind of honest self-criticism that can hold back worthy voices from speaking while letting hypocrites hog the mic. So be glad she’s still speaking up. If it sounds less self-certain than her 2018 masterpiece Room 25, well, who doesn’t sound less self-certain than they did five years ago? (The delusional and the dishonest, that’s who.) 

But what’s most winning about Fatimah Warner, daughter of the first Black woman to own a bookstore in Chicago, is that she never downplays her smarts, though you’d have to be a pretty insecure dope to find her pretentious. Of course some (men, typically) still do, including semi-conscious rapper J. Cole, who, as Black Lives Matter was demanding that public figures (rappers included) address what was happening nationwide in 2020, weirdly lashed out at the less famous MC on a pair of tracks for, well, basically making him feel dumb. Noname replied with the brief, righteous, and sardonic standalone track “Song 33,” which I’m glad is still part of her set. (She was apparently embarrassed at the time to become embroiled in a silly hip-hop beef.) She closed the song by leading the crowd in a chant of “I’m the new vanguard.” 

But Noname’s intelligence and political curiosity aren’t just inescapable parts of her personality—they’re also sources of pleasure for her. This element of her music broke through on her performance of the tense but gentle samba “Rainforest,” with its chorus of “I just wanna dance a little” balanced against its litany of the world’s woes. She wants caring orgasms that turn into love, friendship that blossoms into community, expressions of creativity that don’t feel like lies and occasionally she gets both. But she also knows the world’s rife with oppression and hypocrisy while it’s burning to a crisp.  

She’s not a narrative rapper. On tracks like “Toxic,” about emerging stronger from a bad relationship, or the free-flowing “Song 31,” you piece together what you can about the story, or at least her train of thought, from her imagery, which may be elusive but is rarely vague. You might call the process poetic, and her flow does play with the sprung rhythms of the spoken-word poetry scene she came up through with none of that style’s wooden “bah-da-da-BAH” meter. She’s understandably prickly about hip-hop heads (men, again, typically) classifying her as a “poet” in a way that removes her from the rap competition. (“Why won’t n****s just literally call me a rapper?” she asked in a recent New Yorker profile.)

Live, she shows that she’s also an MC who knows how to work a crowd. “Sing like you really know how,” she exhorted us during “Don't Forget About Me,” a song she prefaced by saying “We’re gonna get real dramatic.” She paused the set highlight “namesake” midway through, brought up the house lights, and instructed the audience to join in with the command “If you know that shit, rap that shit.” They obliged just in time to echo a particularly resonant lyric about how rap’s alliance with the NFL and its “propaganda for the military complex” produces “the same gun that shot Samir in the West Bank.” 

That song calls out Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Rihanna for playing the Super Bowl in a singsong voice, and then, to prove she’s not above self-criticism, Noname also carps at herself out for playing Coachella after saying she wouldn’t. Yet she does all this in a tone that should short-circuit any complaints that she’s overly moralistic—her lyrical intelligence is too active to be dismissed that simply, even if you think she’s being harsh. She’s even too, well, nice for that. Like plenty of her age and younger, if more acutely than most, she’s still figuring out her leftism in public, and too bad if some celebrities catch strays. Also, fuck the NFL.

At the same time, she’s able to get across a verse like “Don't fear the light/That dwells deep within/You are powerful/Beyond what you imagine/Just let your light glow” (from “Reality Check”) in a way that’s as inspiring as it intends without sounding corny. “Realism” is a loaded word in rap, usually equating to a brutal fatalism, but Noname’s reality is more like pragmatic activism. So her track “afro futurism” isn’t sci-fi or escapist in any sense, and it reaches no more optimistic a peak than “The sky says I'm still alive/The sky says we're still alive,” as it imagines the possibility of a Black future by taking steps in the present—including steps Noname herself has taken with her book club and its outreach program to the incarcerated.

Throughout the night, the drummer and bassist provided the funk, without getting too heavy or fancy, often dipping into delicate Afro-Brazilian rhythms, while a synth player contributed lush, textural keys. The track “potentially the interlude” grew beyond its short recorded version with an introductory bass solo and then sprawled into an extended instrumental break. Two fantastic backup singers, whom Noname ID’d as Camillia and Claudia were given repeated opportunities to showcase their gifts. On “Hold Me Down,” which soars musically even as its more earthbound lyrics level criticism as some of her fellow Black people, the duo did all the work that soul choir Voices of Creation does on the album. And on set closer “beauty supply,” about struggling to maintain self-esteem, was worked up to call and response, with the singers harmonizing over the final words in the rapper’s lines in a moment of female solidarity. 

For “gospel?,” its question mark suggesting agnosticism or at least a prayer without faith that Noname offered as “an ode to... whеrever Black peoplе sleep,” the powerfully voiced opener Stout returned to sing the part she handles on the album. And “Boom Boom” (rhymes with “kiss me poom-poom”) was one of those pussy raps Noname referred to, spiked with naughty bits like “I don't smoke cigarettes, but I lick cigars” without ever getting as nasty as many of her female contemporaries, lyrically or physically—her moves were centered around a slight waist wiggle.

Noname came out alone for her encore and introduced herself (“I’m Fatimah”) before instructing us all to say our names together on a count of three. “Nice to meet a group of people,” she replied to the incoherent shout, and began scouring the crowd for “day one Noname fans.” Judging from the response to “Diddy Bop,” from her 2016 debut Telefone, there were plenty; she performed it a cappella with considerable crowd participation. “Y'all old as hell,” she joked afterward. “That song old as fuck.”

Rejoined by her band, Noname closed the night with another oldie, “Shadow Man,” but not before she elicited a cry of “Free Palestine” from the crowd, which was followed by cries of “Free Sudan” and “Free Haiti” from the room, at her insistence. Not that this required any metaphorical arm-twisting. “You knew what you were in for,” she joked, and the assembled fans certainly did. But hey, even the choir needs to hear preaching sometimes. 

Setlist

black mirror
Song 33
Rainforest 
afro futurism
toxic
Song 31
namesake
Reality Check
Don’t Forget About Me
potentially the interlude
hold me down 
boomboom
gospel?
balloons
beauty supply

Encore

Diddy Bop
Shadow Man 

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