Album Review: Noname – Sundial

[AWAL; 2023]

It’s kind of painful to see cultural discourse lean more and more towards an echochamber of congratulatory praise for works that are mostly concerned with signalling virtue and checking boxes. Let’s make one thing clear: the publications that lead those conversations are pretty much institutions who are concerned with upholding their own status. That’s now been the case for a long time, but in the slow fade of generational influence – from Gen X to Millennials – there’s been a noticeable sanitisation in the thinking surrounding what art is supposed to communicate and how its aesthetics should be acceptable to the least common denominator of a large audience group. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the extension of the massive gap that divides mainstream pop and extreme music genres, like industrial and black metal. Mainstream pop by nature has to be as acceptable and pleasing as possible in its topics, aesthetics and overall aura. Meanwhile you could make a black metal song about baking cookies or an industrial album about how lovely kittens are, and the abrasive sonic templates would still upset many journalists who understand the music business as an even playing field, and the art form as a consumerist venture.

This type of thinking becomes especially upsetting in the rap genre. For pretty much the entire duration of its existence, hip hop has had to face scorching ridicule from outsiders, first questioning if its aesthetics even suggest it being a type of music, and later demonising its lyrical content. Of course a lot of that has to do with the prevalence of white voices within these institutions, who don’t read rap as a depiction of the daily class-informed struggle Black people endure within a structurally unjust system. These writers will often gravitate towards the same aesthetics of polite formalism that they associate with empowerment, because they read these more intellectual works as genuinely civilised. That in turn plays into an old stereotype the Black community has struggled with: the trope of the artist who expresses in damning tone and grand gestures that Black art must not be vulgar, that anything too politically radical would just frighten the power structure, and thus any outrage has to be sanitised towards a tone of forced civility so as to appease the white mainstream.

If there is one thing about Sundial that stands out immediately, it’s Noname‘s determination to upset this notion of delivering a sanitised product. The Los Angeles based rapper has been no stranger to controversy, being publicly outspoken about her radically leftist politics and criticising liberal ideals, disappearing into the cold shade for a few years. This might have been motivated as an opposition to the ongoing ‘whitewashing’ of modern rap, but also functioned to help Noname grow and cultivate her perspectives on culture, resulting in Sundial being much more vigorous in attacking the inequalities within her periphery.

This evolution is directly addressed in the opening track “black mirror”. Where the record’s album cover presents an intentionally ugly, distorted image that some less left-leaning listeners might see reflected within Noname’s opinions, the opener allows the rapper to present her own perspective on whom she intends to see in her own reflection: “She’s a shadow walker, moon stalker / Black author, Librarian, contrarian / The state say we dead, we say we not”. 

But then she twists this confidence on follow up track “hold me down” to address the somewhat divergent nature of a Black artist within the structuralist system of the United States. Her thesis here is that the Black community should be more honest and open to self-criticism, admitting and embracing their flaws – a topic which is expanded further down the tracklist. On the chorus she muses “Anywhere we get it, we go get it for now / You was with it when benefits was added to the account / I can count on you for a favour for a certain amount” and adds in a sweet, choir backed mantra “Hold me down, hold me down”. Comparing the executive decadence of the proposed $90,000,000 police training facility in Atlanta to the poverty of most of its citizens, she asks “What if the loved one really don’t love love / Diminish the one love we trust: That’s us”. 

This might seem like a uniting proposition, but with the second verse of “hold me down” Noname explicitly highlights what she reads as self-victimisation within Black culture: “N____s will kill they team / Say the gun did it, run with it / White man or front man, a whole vision / We just see self in his image / Won’t be a self-critic, burn up our whole village / That wasn’t us, that was colonialism”. She directly extends this critique from individual behaviour to cultural milestones of Black liberalism: “We keep our babies fed, we don’t beat and rape on our women, we good / We is Wakanda, we Queen Rwanda / First Black president and he the one who bombed us, yeah / Makin’ n____s rich, Black billionaire legit / Slave market deficit, rise up, the price up / Escapism is better livin’ than this”.

This criticism of Black institutions continues with the eerie, cyberpunk-toned “namesake”, and once more has the rapper criticise herself as culpable towards the structures that ultimately rain war down on the world, contrasting military airstrikes with the lines “That’s you, that’s me, the whole world is culpable / Why complacency float the boat the most? / I don’t really get it, y’all ain’t really with it / All that eat the rich, tax the rich, y’all ain’t really about that shit.” 

Now, the music business is a corrupt capitalist venture, sure. But what many ignore is how there’s a direct intersection between how mega successful mainstream artists intersect with events that become political venues for propaganda. Here, Noname directly calls out Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kendrick for their involvement with the NFL, whose ties to the military are notorious: “Everybody got their roles, I’ma play mine / Like Scooby-Doo in a haunted house / I see the ghost that they talkin’ ’bout, I see the signs / Read in between the line at the crime scene / I ain’t fuckin’ with the NFL or Jay-Z / Propaganda for the military complex / The same gun that shot Lil Terry / Out west the same gun that shot some Samir in the West Bank”. Writers of course were quick to sensationalise the track as a diss, which once more plays into the notion of transgressing lines of decency, when in reality this is more of an attempt to raise awareness of how interwoven the role of mainstream Black artists has become in justifying and profiting off oppressive systems: nobody becomes a billionaire by being nice and wholesome. But then Noname also observes that she, who has famously declared she wouldn’t want to perform in front of a majority white audience, ended up playing Coachella after all, acknowledging through added cheers that there’s an almost celebratory quality to ‘selling out’ and sanitising one’s act. In the end, “Yas, kween!” is just another slogan of institutional approval of the ‘(girl)boss’ who ends up the empowered winner in capitalist lottery.

These ideas of forced sanitisation become infinitely more complex with the single “balloons” – proven by the fact most readers will already know what’s coming next. Here, Noname includes bars from Jay Electronica which caused an immediate outrage cycle for their perceived political incorrectness. Now, Jay Electronica has been a noted follower of Louis Farrakhan and is a registered member of the Nation of Islam, so his positions have to be seen in context of those specific aspects of Black culture (and can be found retrospectively in a lot of 90s rap). And frankly, it’s not on me – a white writer – to give my reading of those political stances. While Noname has been criticised for not editing those lines, she also pointed out that it’s not on her to police and censor other Black voices. There is no such thing as a singular ‘Black chorus’ that is united in one single viewpoint and direction, and there’s a valid point in her public statement on the matter: “n____s legit rap about actual murder and sexual assault that they commit in real life and y’all can’t take a jay elect verse?” Having Electronica present his verses here also has to be taken in the context of the topics “balloons” touches, which are quite direct: “Casual white fans, who invented the voyeur? / Fascinated with mourning, they hope the trauma destroy her / Why everybody love a good sad song, a dark album, like? / Tell me that your homie dead, your mama dead / Your brother bled along the street / The corner where the Walgreens and White Castle is.”

Touching on similar notes as Denzel Curry did on TA13OO (especially with “Blackest Balloon”, to which “balloons”‘ title could be a reference), Noname here debates how Black suffering has often become a tool to generate white sympathy, turning it into cash: “Analyze the gumption, monopolize the landscape / She’s just another artist selling trauma to her fanbase”. This very much puts Jay Electronica’s verses into the position of an unvarnished perspective whose existence on a Noname track is ultimately hard to acknowledge for the many people who objected to it online, as opposed to the broadcasting of ‘suffering’ which not only seems easier to digest by the same audience, but is also lauded and rewarded by them. The defiance of the white gaze that could be deemed acceptable and now seems very intentional. Again: Black perspectives are a wide spectrum, and many Black people will be very public about their unfiltered opinion of Farrakhan, or Jay Electronica’s verses. Still, it’s impossible to unite the factors that on the one hand Black perspectives should be left to be policed out in the open by other Black people, but on the other hand Noname is a ‘woke’ hard left artist who releases her work as a platform on a larger market that generates capital… but do these factors have to be united?

Closer “oblivion” seems like it directly references the scandal: “Easily offended, I need a minute / Sorry, opinionated Atari n____s play too much / I’m that bitch, you sound like cat piss on popcorn / Eat the popcorn, this is Tubi, n____ / Low budget, whole summer ready to go dummy for me / They ain’t fuckin’ with me but I’m fuckin’ with me”. Those are quite clear words – and then the song also ends on a Common guest spot, which some people certainly read in light of his statements on Ye

So how to navigate all this? Maybe “beauty supply” is a good compass. Here, Noname debates the strange contradiction of how Black people are supposed to love their own beauty, while the standards thereof are tied to products and predefined fashion trends: “Silly and absurd, wearin’ a fur cap wig hat / And then preach I love everything Black / I know this ain’t cap, it’s cap / We cap the track, sabotage, I’mma hold me back, like / New identity, same enemy, me / When I believe in prettier with my weave.” There’s a constant need to fit into boxes, which over and over again end up pre-defined by outside (white) standards: “We live in a momentary lapse of judgement / Black concussion, asleep at the wheel / We trusted the plantation to drive us home / Hallelujah, I idolize a white bitch / While I rock a toupee”.

“toxic” goes further, and debates self love in the light of accepting volatility as an almost endearing quality. Referencing Tony Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, it has Noname take accountability for things she’s allowed into her life, thus finding strength to move on – again, acknowledging and finding empowerment in allowing uneasy contradictions to embody themselves, and stand visibly in a stream of a continuing debate that is ultimately very interesting and allows for growth.

In that light, “gospel?” could be the strongest statement – note the question mark. Featuring standout bars from $ilkMoney (“I’m not gon’ lie / I’m not surprised to hear The Fugees is FBI / We were weaponized / Tell my n____s expect TECs and expect the best disguise”) and billy woods (“The ride home at dusk / Faring students and strangers / Feelin’ like we won / Road blocks manned by mere boys / Wide smiles and long black guns”) the track attacks the notion that ‘wokeness’ alone is enough: “I’m ’bout to get these white people caught up, in they bed of lies / Webster dictionary cries, colonize the native tongue / Missionary bible belt, motherland overrun / My gun heavy, I’m about to unload”. With all the preceding outrage and debate of internalised racism and whiteness-as-normative-standard, “gospel?” confronts the notion that Blackness is ultimately fed to a discourse machine that digests it so that it becomes part of a white-gaze-approved echo chamber, which, in the end, still only subjugates any revolutionary quality. woods’ lines here ring especially true, with the image of him witnessing with his father, Mao-bible in breast pocket, a celebratory speech by a Black leader and ensuing euphoria, only to observe the oppressor smile back. So: no matter how much white writers debate these aspects, they stand on their own as a lasting dialogue within.

Besides all these see-sawing topics and political conversations that will ensue, Noname’s art clearly has evolved: the jazzy instrumentals are a bit more memorable than before, with “hold me down”, “gospel?”, “boomboom” and “namesake” especially standing out. Her flow is still as familiarly loose and laid back, but with an additional emotional tone and gravitas that can pack a powerful punch, and pushed to the forefront where before it seemed a little buried in the mix. This seems a conscious choice to confront those listeners who simply lost themselves in the gentle flow of Room 25. Musically, it’s Noname’s most convincing album yet – as a whole, it defies any attempt to be embraced as “mainstream” or “digestible”. As she sings on “potentially the interlude”: “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”. As she states here, she won’t write like Kendrick, even if it would allow for greater popularity. In the end, this is her wisest choice: to not play to the journalist crowd, or the white gaze, or the Coachella masses. She’s one of the few artists that plays to her own vision and nobody else’s.