the inside track

Noname’s Voice Remains Singular on ‘Rainforest’

Photo: RMV/Shutterstock

Noname had originally intended for her third album, Factory Baby, to come out in 2020, but the pandemic and last summer’s protests for racial justice set the stage for a higher-stakes mission. Already known for marrying her work with social justice, the Chicago rapper had started a book club in August 2019, and as 2020 went on, her focus shifted to expanding the organization. At the same time, she’d been doing reading of her own — on everything from anti-capitalism to Israel and Palestine — and working through her thoughts on Twitter. When J. Cole dropped a song accusing her of using a “queen tone” in tweeting about big-time rappers’ support of Black Lives Matter, she brushed him off with a 70-second response: “Song 33,” her only track of 2020. But shortly after, she disavowed the song, calling it a “distraction.” “I tried to use it as a moment to draw attention back to the issues I care about but I didn’t have to respond,” she tweeted. “My ego got the best of me.”

Now, there’s nothing getting in the way of Noname’s message on her first song of 2021, “Rainforest.” It’s one of Noname’s most explicit political statements yet, especially potent in a second verse that pivots from smoking up to taking those in power to task for a range of sociopolitical issues. The wonder of the track is nothing feels out of place — even the grooving, slightly tropical beat, one of Noname’s most danceable yet.

To Noname, politics doesn’t have to mean self-seriousness. After all, this is a woman who rapped, “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism” back in 2018. She’s more interested in honesty: with others, with the world, with herself. It’s at the center of her unaffected, chill delivery, often more like spoken word than rapping. Noname comes to the mic baring herself — and she does so from the hook of “Rainforest,” when she slips from rhetorical questions she seems to be asking herself to the more direct ones she’s been asking on Twitter over the past year. Both kinds of questions need answers, and she’s not pretending she has all of them.

She does know the deck is stacked, and what makes that second verse so impactful is just how skillfully Noname outlines it all without getting reductive or didactic. With a line like “Dyin’ on stolen land for a dollar, like that ain’t fucked up,” she lays out the connections between anti-Black violence, capitalism, and colonization more clearly than some social theorists can in a whole essay. And without sacrificing poetic flair: “You ain’t seen death, I can hear the blood on the moon,” Noname goes on to rap. “These n- - - -s put a flag up on it, all they do is consume.” None of the information is new, but her perspective remains singular. That’s even — especially, in fact — true when she’s cracking herself up, calling billionaires cokeheads.

Finding moments of escape from global injustice is a survival skill. Noname doesn’t just want to laugh at the billionaire cokeheads running the world — she wants to dance, she sings in the chorus. And while “Rainforest” falls in line with recent songs about dancing amid insurmountable tragedy (see SAULT’s “I Just Want to Dance” and Empress Of and Amber Mark’s “You’ve Got to Feel”), it’s also at home in Noname’s own discography. On “Freedom,” the first song she released after dropping “Gypsy” from her name in 2016, Noname searches for meaning in a sprawling stream of consciousness, struggling to figure out the song she’s even rapping in real time. “I know this is a song for overcoming,” she finally concludes before running out of words. “Dance with me,” she starts to repeat, the closest thing the song has to a hook. “Dance with me, I know I’m free.” Years later, the scope of that search for freedom has only expanded.

Noname’s Voice Remains Singular on ‘Rainforest’