Earlier this week, the rising young rap star Noname (otherwise known as Fatimah Warner) mentioned on Twitter that her new single Song 31 was available on Apple Music. “Apologies for people who couldn’t find it,” the Chicagoan explained. “They spelled my name wrong, which is out of my control.”
Just another indignity in the life of a female rapper, working in a patriarchal hip-hop field. Noname, an upbeat, fresh-faced Chicagoan with a slam-poetry background, represents a changing of the guard in the genre. She’s not signed to a major label, so when she talks about something being out of control, it’s an exception. She is young, part of an insurgent new hip-hop generation that includes 2018-breakout Travis Scott and others. Noname subtly alludes to the old guard on her song Ace, with a line about radio-friendly rappers wearing adult diapers. (Okay, not so subtly.)
And, yes, she’s a women, as are Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and the double-Grammy nominee from North Carolina, Marlanna (Rapsody) Evans – artists making significant headway commercially and critically in a world long ruled by (and associated with) men. Music fans less than enamoured of pop’s most dominant genre are at least familiar with male artists Kanye West and Jay Z, even if they don’t know an Iggy Azalea from an Azealia Banks. Rap disbelievers could probably name a half dozen of Drake’s romantic interests over the years, even if they couldn’t name one female artist on Drake’s OVO label. (That’s a trick question. There are no female artists on Drake’s OVO label.)
On Thursday, at a sold-out Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, in advance of a show one night later in Montreal, Noname opened her concert with Self, a thoughtful and boisterous rap that addresses the gender bias. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that.”
Noname is not the only one with such answers. This summer, the charismatic Cardi B became the first female rap artist to score multiple Hot 100 No. 1 hits, with the Latin-tinged I Like It joining her previous chart-topper Bodak Yellow (Money Moves). Beyond Cardi B’s record-breaking ascension, Nicki Minaj’s superstardom is also well-established. Unfortunately, a burgeoning golden age for testosterone-free hip hop is tainted by an apparent Minaj-Cardi B rift. Such feuds are part of the rap game – at least the way the boys play it, anyway.
For her part, Noname doesn’t engage in public spats and diss-tracks. Between songs at the Danforth, she even appeared to pay tribute to the free-spirited Cardi B’s twerking prowess. Mind you, on the song Ace, possibly alluding to sexual-harassment claims against a certain Shawshank Redemption star, she dismissively ponders, “Frankly, I find it funny that Morgan is still acting.”
A bit of history: Noname followed her appearance on Chance the Rapper’s woozy, psychedelic Acid Rap mixtape from 2013 with her own mixtape, (Telefone) in 2016. Her debut album Room 25, released in September, earned her a wider audience and approving nods from the taste-makers.
Her approach is playful, clever and relatively melodic. Some call it “lullaby rap,” although, given her stage moniker, it’s a good bet Noname would prefer to stay clear of labels. There’s a bit of light jazz to what she does musically. She is not against neo-soul situations – “Somebody hit D’Angelo, I think I need him on this one” – and being socially conscious doesn’t mean she can’t be undainty. Her lyricism is topical, humorous, occasionally braggadocious and salty as need be.
On stage, Noname projected a joyful air, with wide eyes and a semi-smile that suggested she was just as surprised and delighted with the things coming of her mouth as the rest of us in the room were. And so, it was a surprise when she mentioned that the end of the show was her favourite part of her concerts.
Noname’s appearance took place on the same day as the 116th U.S. Congress opened in Washington, where Representative Nancy Pelosi retook the House Speaker’s gavel and more than 100 congresswomen were sworn in, representing a historic gender-shift in power for women in America. Fun fact: It wasn’t until 2011 that female lawmakers had their own restroom close to the House floor. On Thursday, it was reported that there was line to get in.
Noname, by the way, after taking to social media about her misspelled name, later tweeted, “Honestly I’m just getting started.” One gets that sense, and the line she’s in is getting longer.
Noname plays Montreal’s Theatre Corona, Jan. 4; Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, March 12.