On New Year’s Day 2019, Chicago rapper Noname dropped the single “Song 31,” ft. Phoelix. It was her first release since her well-received debut album “Room 25” in September. Just a few months later and with virtually no promotion, Noname released “Song 32.” On “Song 32,” Noname switches topic breathlessly, weaving obscure references throughout her lines so quickly that if you don’t listen close enough you just might miss them. The single is yet another testament to Noname’s unique ability to combine clever lyrics, complex subjects, and jazz-inspired instrumentals to transport the listener into a poetic and immersive soundscape.
Produced by fellow Chicago-native Phoelix, “Song 32” opens with whistling backed by jazzy, percussion-saturated instrumentals. The whistling stops abruptly, and Noname enters the song with a fast-paced verse. She swiftly shifts from commenting on staggering bills to inordinate wealth, dropping metaphors and allusion so quickly that it’s hard to catch the full effect on the first listen. This fast delivery is to wonderful stylistic effect: Noname doles out searing critiques of American greed and interventionism, and she doesn’t care if the subject of her critique is fast enough to keep up.
She switches subjects effortlessly, delivering her takes on wealth and popular culture (“I’m Cardi’s engagement ring”), religion vis-à-vis Eve (“Apple wasn’t the apple, the truest sin was the pussy”), and American politics (“I’m Obama pushing the button, in Libya, Pakistan”). She closes the verse with the line “I’m America at its best.” She covers a wide range of topics in just a few lines, and it’s initially unclear what the message is. The invocation of America makes the subject explicit. She repeats the line again and, for the first time in the verse, leaves room for digestion.
The whimsical chorus features the refrain “Yippee-ki, yippee-ki-yay,” a one-liner from the 1988 action film “Die Hard” that is a satirical reference to cowboys. Noname is the most recent proponent of the “Yee-Haw Agenda,” a musical reclamation of the tropes and imagery of the “American Cowboy.” The line should feel out of place, but it somehow feels at home amidst the Caribbean accent that she dons on top of the drum beat.
Noname boasts about how the success that she has found originated in poetry (“Started getting money from writing the haiku”), but this bravado is betrayed in the second verse. Returning to the flow of the first verse, she shifts to the more personal, discussing her loneliness and commenting on her competing desires to remain humble while enjoying wealth (“Part of me buried in the earth, part of me chasing more money”).
As an independent artist who has decried the obscene wealth and fame that comes with celebrity, Noname must navigate the realities of the spotlight that accompany critical acclaim. She masters these contradictions. In her music, she layers lyrics saturated in serious content over lighthearted instrumentation. In her professional choices, she is a conscious independent artist who uses her platform to draw attention to important issues in the industry. From the gray area within these binaries of art and obligation, she creates something beautiful.