Let’s go ahead and retire the narrative that frames the entire conversation about women in rap as a battle between Cardi and Nicki. Sure, Chicago artist Noname (who has said in interviews that she resents being called the anti-Cardi) moves in a different lane than the stadium-packing superstars, but in an afternoon set at Austin City Limits Festival, she proved her ability to hype a crowd.
She threw down the gauntlet with the set opener, a fierce rendition of “Self,” off her new album, “Room 25,” which includes the repeated hook “Y'all really thought a bitch couldn't rap, huh?” No one in the crowd was trying to step to her like that, but if they were, she shut it down from the jump.
Once part of the same youth poetry group as Chance the Rapper, Noname’s style still leans hard on an earnest spoken word flow, but in the year since she played the South by Southwest Music Festival, she’s sharpened her flow. Refreshingly, she eschews the modern rap trends of auto-tuned hooks and recorded backing tracks. Instead her words tumble out live in torrents of wisdom-drenched wordplay. For her ACL set, she brought a five-piece live band, who bolstered her style with rich, jazzy soundbeds.
“This is our first time playing all the new (expletive) live, so it’s a little bit awkward,” she said near the top of the set. But her open stage presence helped cover for any technical glitches.
She has a self-effacing, confessional style that adds to the appeal of her thoughtful songcraft. “I had sex for the first time at age 25 and made a whole album about it,” she said near the midpoint in her set. But one of the most poignant songs from “Room 25” is a quiet meditation on mortality, “Don’t Forget About Me,” which played beautifully in Zilker Park.
Her set, which mixed together songs from “Room 25” with tracks like “Yesterday” and “Freedom” from her solid debut mixtape “Telefone,” proved she’s building a solid body of work. It also served as a reminder that it’s time to quit putting an asterisk by the names of female rappers. Musically speaking, Noname is producing work that pushes the hip-hop genre forward as much as any man out there.