Noname has one of the most distinctive styles in modern rap.
Taking cues from her early work in spoken word poetry, her verses exhibit a focus on wordplay and a loose flow that’s more concerned with reaching the next point of emphasis than landing on the beat. Her musical style has largely reflected this, featuring a loose rhythmic structure and lush textures.
These conventions can be heard on her seminal mixtape, “Telefone,” and to a lesser extent on her debut album, “Room 25.” Her newest work, “Sundial,” instead juxtaposes Noname’s laid back flow with more structured and rhythmically dense instrumentals.
“black mirror” begins the album with a bossa nova feel, featuring a busy-but-soft percussion section. Effervescent vocal harmonies bridge the verses while a tight bassline provides the foundation. The mix is very quiet on this track, allowing it to build a detailed texture without drowning out any instrument.
Listening closely to the instrumental, it’s easy to hear sounds that weren’t immediately obvious. A synth line floats above the verse, loosely doubling the bassline; very soft guitar comping can be heard panned hard left throughout, and the percussion section hides at least a half dozen syncopated voices.
“hold me down” turns the volume up, but not by much. The beat is less involved, being composed of drums, bass and vocal harmonies. Noname’s vocals play quietly throughout the tune, with Jimetta Rose’s soul choir Voices of Creation taking over for the chorus.
For the most part, the syncopated bass drives the beat forward with the drums being more consistent. The hi-hat plays constant eighth notes through nearly the whole song with an interesting compression effect distorting them.
Noname has built her unique style through music that prioritizes timbre. This isn’t to say that her work generally lacks in other areas, but it’s clear that she puts particularly great stock into how the music sound.
This clarity begins to fade somewhat as her music develops. It was most prominent on “Telefone,” and now having reached “Sundial,” she has honed her composition and production to include a greater emphasis on rhythm and melody.
“boomboom” features Ayoni’s vocal melodies, which would sound quite at home on a Beyoncé record, while Noname enters occasionally between verses with a nimble countermelody. Soft flute lines and harmonies punctuate Ayoni’s sections and a trumpet section enters toward the end.
Her basslines have taken on a more active role, acting as a de facto melody during the sparser verses. Take “namesake,” which contrasts a weighty acoustic bass line with wide synth strings at the beginning, and later switches the strings for an energetic drum backbeat.
“toxic” turns the bass and synth down, making the drumbeat the focus. It can get repetitive, but the beat is intricate enough to hold a listener’s attention. Noname’s rippling flow plays well with the consistency, laying back but being kept in time by the drum.
“oblivion” ends the album, seeing the return of Ayoni and featuring Common. It begins with punchy drums and bass behind Common’s vocal harmonies and gradually adds in background synths and denser vocals.
With the low-volume production, it can be easy to miss these entrances, so the building sound can easily sneak up on the listener. Common’s verse takes the song out, bringing an abrupt end to the album.
“Sundial” is Noname at her most refined yet. Her signature complexity and looseness are balanced wonderfully by a touch of inflexibility, making the music feel more confident and composed.
It’s difficult to say whether or not it’s her best work, but it’s certainly her most assertive.