If it can happen in music, it’s happening in Noname’s music. The Chicago rapper dropped a delicate new song last week, titled “Rainforest,” and the name alone challenges us to listen closely and fully: If you can get your ears beyond the played-out evocation of Earth-death, you’ll wonder how we ever allowed the idea of extinction to become a cliche. From there, the 29-year-old offers a sotto voce meditation on imperialism, anti-Blackness, the death spiral of capitalism, the existential loneliness fostered by all of the above, and, against the odds, our individual significance in an unfathomably grander scheme. “The universe bleeds infinity,” she raps. “You got one life.”
The tumult of the past year — or the past 50 years, really — has shown the necessity for a new kind of American protest music, one that goes beyond awareness-raising and cosmetic catharsis, and “Rainforest” feels something like it. Yes, our world is literally burning, but instead of adding another shout against the planet’s mounting injustices, Noname offers high-definition contemplation, hoping that the intimate syllables landing in your ear might leave an indelible mark on your conscience. “Rainforest” isn’t a song to chant in the streets. It’s a song to anchor in your mind.
It arrives eight months after “Song 33,” a 70-second masterstroke that materialized not long after Noname tweeted her disillusionment in today’s “top selling rappers” for failing to put their resources into the Black Lives Matter movement. Her tweet didn’t call anyone out by name, but J. Cole felt as if her keystrokes were aimed entirely at him, so he recorded an egomaniac’s lament titled “Snow on tha Bluff’’ and proceeded to say the quiet part loud. “Now I ain’t no dummy to think I’m above criticism/So when I see something that’s valid, I listen,” Cole rapped. “But s---, it’s something about the queen tone that’s bothering me.” Remember, he was responding to written words, not one of which was “J.” or “Cole.” The tone was entirely in his mind.
Two days later, Noname delivered her atomizing response — and because “Song 33” was music, not Twitter, the serenity of her tone had a lot to do with it. Over a vivid beat produced by the revered producer Madlib, her voice was a scalpel of matter-of-fact-ness, steadily tracing the contours of the big picture. “He really ’bout to write about me when the world is in smokes? When it’s people in trees?” Noname asked calmly. “When George was begging for his mother, saying he couldn’t breathe, you thought to write about me?”
She brings the same sang-froid to “Rainforest,” patiently unloading her most urgent words into a bossa nova rhythm’s gentle churn. “You ain’t seen death, I can hear the blood on the moon,” she raps, casually doling out one of the most paralyzing couplets you could ever hope to hear in a song. And then, “These n----- put a flag up on it, all they do is consume/Only animal to ravage everything in its path/They turned a natural resource into a bundle of cash/Made the world anti-Black, then divided the class.”
Outraged and unflinching, it’s a lullaby and a prayer, a salvo presented as inner-monologue, a protest anthem for the inside of your skull, a hushed blast of hyper-empathy from someone who can hear the blood on the moon, the loud part quiet.
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