At one point at the 9:30 Club, Noname promised: “I’m going to be transparent with you.” All tour long, she confessed, she had been having trouble getting through the entirety of her just-released track, “Song 31.” Her Wednesday night show was no different, but after a break for water and encouragement from the crowd, she tiptoed her way through her latest lyrical minefield to cheers.
Transparency has never been a problem for the 27-year-old poet-rapper, who stole the spotlight from such collaborators as Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins before dazzling with her neo-neo-soul mix tape “Telefone” in 2016. “Room 25” followed last year, doubling down on lush, live instrumentation and lyrical truths so dense it seemed like she was running out of room on the page and scribbling syllables in the margins. “I sell pain for profit,” she rapped on “Song 31,” which bounces between black representation on TV, factory farming, the prison-industrial complex and making it in the music business. “Ain’t no labels that’s backing me, but my tickets be sellin’ out.”
That was the case on Wednesday, Noname’s second sold-out show at 9:30 but the first after Tuesday’s was canceled due to illness. But even if she wasn’t at full strength onstage, asking the crowd for their vocal help and ceding a chorus or two, a diminished Noname can still out-rap most rappers. Her lyrical pitter-patter, more spoken that shouted, was well-practiced, her flow sharpened at open mics and poetry slams. And despite her low-key delivery — “I’m like the most unenthusiastic rapper ever,” she joked — she is a talented performer, expressing as much with an anime-wide-eye or a furrowed brow as she does with a pun or punchline.
Noname’s real gift, though, is making the heaviest burdens seem hopeful and buoyant. She rapped about white supremacy, police brutality, globalization, poverty, capitalism — you name it — without the preachy condescension that often plagues her conscious rap contemporaries. She grappled with mortality on the mournful “Don’t Forget About Me” but paired it with the defiant “Forever,” and when she said “I could die here” on “Reality Check,” she turned sorrow into joy: “You are powerful beyond what you imagine, just let your light glow.”
How does Noname keep glowing up? On Wednesday, her sly sense of humor certainly helped the medicine go down. She joked about safe sex, parodied “turn up!” rappers and even teased the atheists and white folks in the building — two groups ostensibly omitted from her for-us-by-us narratives (both groups appeared to take the ribbing in stride). But mostly, she did it by luxuriating in her truths, no matter how painful. “I am still human,” she reminded the crowd, “and it’s okay.”