On 2003's Black Album, Jay-Z famously stated:
"If skills sold, truth be told
I'd probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense, but I did 5 Mil...
I ain't been rhyming like Common since"
A nod to one Brooklyn and one Chicago MC, both noted for their heavy social content, and in Common's case, especially at that time, a deep introspection. The documentary for Jay-Z's Black Album also featured a scene where Jay throws his hands up, frustrated with rappers who were, in his words "scared to be themselves". The following year, Kanye West (another Chicagoan) exploded onto the mainstream with his 2004 debut College Dropout, and with all of his contradictions, an entire generation of young artists unafraid to be themselves followed.
Watching Chicago-born rapper Noname perform the first of two sold-out nights at The Showbox in Seattle reminded me how far we've come since Jay-Z's claim that skills don't sell, and even further from the frustration with hip-hop artists afraid to be themselves.
Like many, I first heard Noname with her show-stealing verse from "Lost," a song from Chance the Rapper's generation-defining Acid Rap tape, released in 2013. By the time her solo debut Telefone was released in 2016, I was scouring the internet looking for any footage of her performing. Her web presence before Telefone was so scarce. In this era of hyper-visibility where artists will literally pay a robot to get more “likes” on an Instagram post, hearing an artist who sounded completely unique and couldn't be bothered with social media was more intriguing than anyone's web presence. Noname captivated me for so many reasons. Her rhyme schemes, her wordplay, and her storytelling is always so rich and complex, but her delivery is disarmingly soft, playful... almost like a lullaby. It had been so long since I heard an MC that just didn't sound like anyone. And her content rarely strays from a vulnerable space, giving her a sense of connection with the listeners that goes so much deeper than your favorite rapper's Snapchat. Without a single music video, Noname made her diary entries in Telefone the most addicting rap album of 2016.
Her follow-up album Room 25 was a surprise release that came in late September of last year. The album built on the same formula as Telefone (produced in Southern California with her band all in one room), but with more humor alongside new shared experiences of love and loss, and at times what seemed like a new sense of awareness of her audience.
"...Noname thank you for your sweet Telefone
It saves lives
The secret is I'm actually broken...
...Tell ‘em Noname still don’t got no money
Tell 'em Noname almost passed out drinking
Secret is, she really think it saves lives..."
Everything Noname admits to on "Don't Forget About Me" had me worried about her like a real sister, but the truth is, isolation is one of our most shared human experiences. Sometimes amplifying the experience you are scared to give voice to, is the exact thing that's needed to let someone know they are not alone... and knowing you are not alone can be enough to get through the day. Noname's courage and sincerity in that regard continued to shine, connect and bring people together, so it was no surprise back in December when her mid-March concert was announced at The Showbox, that she sold out of 1150 tickets in a matter of days. A second show was added and that sold out, too.
Sometimes amplifying the experience you are scared to give voice to, is the exact thing that's needed to let someone know they are not alone... and knowing you are not alone can be enough to get through the day.
When Noname stepped on stage that first night the joy in the room was palpable. Her excitement on stage was infectious, and at times the night felt like a communal celebration for all of us, just for surviving. She set it off with "Self", the first song from Room 25, and went right into the second song "Blaxploitation" from there.
"You thought with all her purses she be real, real Blacky
Just like a Hillary Clinton, who masqueraded the system
Who chicken-boned, watermelon-ed
Traded hoodie for hipster
Infatuated, the minstrel
When we cool, they cool
We die, it's coon
We supa fly indigenous, now hop to the moon
Who brought the movie to America?
It's still coming soon"
There's nothing simple about these bars. Throughout the night Noname and her band would swell in volume and then fall back, leaving the mostly young, all-ages audience to finish her lines, and they weren't missing a single word. They did just about every song from both Telefone and Room 25.
I watched most of the show standing with a friend who I used to see at every hip-hop show in Seattle nearly 20 years ago. She was there with her teenage daughter who knew every one of Noname's lyrics.
Seeing this friend made me think about the days of seeing members of Freestyle Fellowship perform at tiny all-ages venues in Seattle that maybe never sold-out. I thought about Medusa and Figures of Speech, and how they used to talk about how performing with Freestyle Fellowship at the Good Life Cafe in Los Angeles meant coming up with a different style of rap on a weekly basis. I thought about how much Noname would fit into that tradition today, and how her early collaborator Chance the Rapper cites Freestyle Fellowship as one of his biggest inspirations.
I don't often see the same faces at shows for younger artists anymore, but I hope my generation knows that somewhere, everything we fought for is doing better than ever, and in many ways has been taken further than we can even imagine.
At the end of the night we watched Noname participate in the whole tradition of waiting for an encore before doing the night's closing songs, and as she stepped back on stage she made fun of the tradition as a whole. It sounds simple, but I'm so thankful to see some traditions get broken. There have been so many sacrifices I've watched artists make for the sake of the craft. To see an artist celebrated for pushing her art first, and for pushing the limits of an art form without it being a sacrifice is just so refreshing. How far we've come from "skills don't sell." She wore an SWV-inspired "Sisters With Invoices" shirt, and I felt Noname's joy as my own.