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Noname's 'Sundial' pursues a hip-hop revolution

<em>Sundial</em> is against sitting idle, and calls not just to hear its own voice, but to enter into conversation in the griot tradition of call and response.
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
Sundial is against sitting idle, and calls not just to hear its own voice, but to enter into conversation in the griot tradition of call and response.

Hip-hop has been effectively deradicalized by middle age, botched love and commercialism, to the extent that so-called "conscious rap" often sounds like a grift to feed a void in the market — the hungry ghost of authenticity. Plenty of the music is no longer a visceral and spirit-driven creative endeavor. It might be realer to just make indifferent music in these instances than to feign the social conscience of a '90s backpack rapper 'cause you aren't hard enough (or new enough) to mimic trap or drill, or surreal enough to channel a new horizon out of the oblivion, one built on the remains of a bygone intellectualism inflected with swagger and rhythm.

In titling her third studio album Sundial, after a device that measures time by shadows, the rapper Noname calls us to yield to her personal sense of what time it is, based on the qualities of her own overcast as mingled with her ability to throw shade on false light wherever she perceives it. Both lyrically and culturally, her mode of confrontation addresses the self first, making her interiority the heliocentric soul and the unpredictable shadow that circles and taunts its orbit like a semi-hostile guard. There's a hint of the carceral in her shadow play, so that the album's prevailing drive toward collective liberation to the dignity of privacy, error and unlearning inadequate paradigms emerges that much more triumphant. She is a righteous teacher and intellect, so effective that some listeners seem to dread and resent her range. Her trajectory to this point places her in conversation with Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone; she creates protest music in styles often reserved for hedonism and traumatic romance.

Sundial is a call to a casual renaissance of revolution-driven storytelling on hip-hop albums, sonic upheavals that use the comeback narrative for momentum. Noname comes for the Black intellect of rap that has been swagger-jacked by professional opportunists. She attempts to reclaim its glory without lamenting its pending erasure too much. The biographical slurs with the collective memory until you hear nuances of the subdued romantic lead in Gwendolyn Brooks' poetic novel Maud Martha as explicitly as the no-frills militancy of Fannie Lou Hamer or Fred Hampton. And you detect something new: dejection cut with optimistic futurism, and the reclaiming of right to error and retreat by a woman onto whom so many project selfish expectations.

We begin by gazing into the "Black Mirror" with her. It clamps around us like a dystopian prison and she leverages her verse into escape routes and diversions. She wants to break free of time: "Shadowbox the sundial 'til sundown." She works to beat the countdown into submission with the relaxed but frenetic cadence of a retired messiah, and from the start there's a lighthearted sway between the autobiographical and the communal that sets the pace of an epic with our nameless hero. She asks for support upfront ("hold me down / hold me down"), with such flippant self-possession that you might miss the interrogative and become a listless spectator, offering nothing at all. Most of all Sundial is against sitting idle, and calls not just to hear its own voice, but to enter into conversation in the griot tradition of call and response between texts, ideas, listeners and speakers that makes Black art timeless, with or without the dilation that Noname commands.

Her fearless merging of archetypes and yugas (the epochs of incremental lengths in Hindu theology, usually lasting hundreds of thousands of years and feeling interminable until destiny intervenes), of delights and devastations, is what makes her effortlessly visionary. She's not trying to be a martyr to unreasonable levels of decency in the face of adversaries, nor is she aimlessly skipping into combativeness for attention. You can feel her deliberating, even about how to follow the advice of Sun Ra — to make a mistake and do something right. On the third track, "Balloons," there's some consensus that she does exactly this by collaborating with controversial rapper Jay Electronica. The song holds the album's swingingest hook and mourns the risk in advance. "Why everybody love a good sad song?" It's a ballad against ballads, and it makes sense that she hosts a tragic hero. "She's just another artist selling trauma to her fanbase." The offended might miss how meta this is, how invested in the impossible wish of rehabilitation. Electronica enters as Lazarus, a risen corpse, as self-aware as he is full of hubris and attack. Neither rapper comes to redeem the other but the foiling that ensues makes for one of the most gorgeous duets in recent memory. It's OK to be unapologetic, I want to say, and to refuse to negotiate trauma through hate, for the span of the song. This is a performance. It's Revolutionary Theater, in the sense Amiri Baraka, also a fount of controversy at times, declares in his poem "Black Art": "Put it on him, poem. Strip him naked to the world! ... Clean out the world for virtue and love, Let there be no love poems written until love can exist freely and cleanly." We can't expect a universe that comes into being through the black mirror to be coded for the sensibilities of white liberals and conformists. This is the prevailing controversy within our expectations of Black music, and especially hip-hop in this middle age: It's not considered offensive when it's denigrating Black life, but any other offenses are egregious.

Meanwhile, unbothered and channeling the cools that Miles Davis and Betty Carter invented, Noname makes Sundial's central question and haunt the tension between actor and spectator that allows such unrelenting judgment of art in the first place. "Who invented the voyeur," she interrogates. Verses go on to accuse the idle onlooker of entitlement without personal stakes. The difficulty with hip-hop as a genre is that vulnerability within it often arrives laced with aggressive bravado, and paradoxically skittish. Despite her inherent call to anonymity, Noname's audience mirrors her relationship to the world, and tends to oscillate between beatification of the artist and relentless condemnation of her, as if her public's watchtower is measured by the yugas. Some of these eras are devoted to chaos and others to peace so superfluous it creates a yearning for disruptions and duality. The inter-dimensions revealed on this album exist between such fates. They are not the mundane and forgettable interludes between seconds and hours that only silence can redeem.

Every epic requires a little intrigue and blasphemy, and as a subtle epic hero of this music, Noname is doing her job well. She makes you think without being elitist, she rouses some to anger without any talk of violence. How many rappers can say the same, as the ticker on the genre approaches the past like a beggar for redemption? When a quiet redeemer comes with a brand new approach to time itself, it makes sense she would be a little ostracized. She needs that isolation on some level to make work of this caliber, this cerebral and free.

"I just wanna be the love of my life," she admits on "Beauty Supply." Who does not want this for herself? Sundial is a blatant effort to come down from a pedestal that was mounted with good but perhaps naïve intentions about the public's potential to receive the famous and talented as real. Noname is a rapper from Chicago who promotes a life of study, trial and error, and community. Noname is no longer looking for approval or to be the ideal mix of hood and political; she is looking to pull her image out of the fun house mirror's distortions and say, if you can't deal with the true version, you never deserved the ideal. Hyper-vigilance about identity politics dissolves into prayer and love call, a myth of revolution trapped within the docility of religious faith, and then the material excess of neglected ruins. One's politics will always be disappointing to someone, which is why great writers and lyricists, even the radical ones, have to master the craft of working with and loving language enough that its territory of infinite play outlasts even their own belief systems and is the final muse. This is the album of someone who knows this, and humbly leverages her love of words as a love of self and Black life on her own terms. It's this capacity to see and retrieve herself from the myth that truly makes its hero's consciousness universal, useful and transcendent of collective disillusionment.

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