Noname Isn’t Hiding: She Talks ‘Sundial,’ Becoming Friends With J. Cole, And Working On Next Album

Following the release of her latest album, Sundial, Complex spoke with Noname about working on her next album, being underrated as a rapper, her friendship with J. Cole, and more.


If you want to know where Noname is—mentally or emotionally—listen to the music.

The Chicago-bred “shadow walker, moon stalker, Black author,” and perhaps most importantly, “rapper, too,” is rarely seen, but always heard. Today, we find Noname in Complex’s New York studio, laughing at the thought of me including her song “Shadow Man”—off her critically acclaimed mixtape, Telefone—in a romantic playlist I made in 2016. “That song is sad as hell,” she jeers, but I assure her that the way it sounds balances the weight of its lyrics.

That’s Telefone in a nutshell—a mixtape with lines that touch on heavy topics like dealing with loss and gentrification, wrapped in beautiful xylophone instrumentation. As she explains it, her latest album, released on Aug. 11, is meant to be a version of Telefone that a Noname from a different universe would have made, inspired by Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. Sundial is an album that is equal parts self-reflective and critical of society. 

Noname has grown a lot since releasing her first mixtape in 2016. She came into music with the stage name “Noname Gypsy,” but dropped the “gypsy” in March 2016 after learning the history behind the word. She challenged the idea of capitalism on social media right before the pandemic broke out, and continued to educate herself. As much as she holds society accountable for its missteps, she also recognizes her own. “I spend a lot of time saying ‘Black capitalism is the worst thing. Capitalists are the worst people,’ and I don't hold that belief because I have to pay my rent in some kind of way, we’re all tap dancing in this.”

Sundial is an amalgamation of the discoveries Noname has made about herself and the world around her in the five years since her last studio album, Room 25. It opens with “Black Mirror,” the most esoteric and “poetry heavy” song on the album, as she explains it, that describes all of the layers that make up Noname before she shifts the focus to her community on “Hold Me Down.” Using heavier production choices as her hook and yarn, Noname crotchets critical race theory and personal discovery to make Sundial a quilt embedded with ownership and self-reflection. She analyzes how Eurocentric beauty standards have affected the Black community on “Beauty Supply,” and holds the biggest artists on the globe, like Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé, accountable for indirectly funneling money into the American war machine by performing at the Super Bowl on “Namesake.” And despite being committed to her beliefs, she also recognizes that she still has to work in systems that she doesn’t completely agree with, and that includes the music industry. 

“I don't become a different person just because I really love Black people and I want to see socialism happen,” she explains. “It just doesn't work like that and I thought it could. I'm still figuring it out. I believe in this music and I want to promote it, but at the same time, even doing something like this [interview] is very contradictory to what I really believe in.”

Ultimately, Noname is a normal person. She cares about her community, her art, and she is actively seeking the knowledge to help inform her opinions on things she values. She doesn’t know it all, and has never really touted like she did, despite some of her supporters acting like she is a revolutionary. 

“I'm not Angela Davis, I'm not Lauryn Hill. I'm a fuck nigga from Chicago,” Noname says plainly. “I'm just a regular person who likes to read occasionally. I care about people. I really, really care about Black people, and that's it.” 

Following the release of her latest album, Sundial, Complex spoke with Noname about submitting the album for Grammy consideration, being underrated as a rapper, her friendship with J. Cole, and more. 

View this video on YouTube

I introduced you with the opening bar from “Black Mirror,” but you interestingly describe yourself in the third person as “a rapper, too” at the end of the song. Do you think people overlook your lyrical abilities because you do so much? 
I do, I was actually talking to someone about it earlier. But I think that's probably just my ego a little bit. But in terms of a lot of the hip-hop conversations, I feel like folks don't really always put me in them. I think I can really rap. I think I'm one of the best, but when it comes to my style of writing, I use a lot of poetic devices so people often just call me a poet instead. But I'm like, “But it rhymes and I'm on beat, it's rap.” But that song is very poetry heavy, “Black Mirror.”

That’s interesting, because you would point out in older interviews how it would bother you when people would try to pigeonhole you as just a poet. 
That's a good point. It is about the cadence as well. That probably does have something to do with it, and they don’t do it with rappers who sing. All these rappers I feel like are singers, to me, but we still call them rappers. So there is that space that we give artists to use multiple mediums in order to get the piece through, whatever is needed for the song, whether it's more melody or whatever. But at the end of the day, it's still hip hop and we can recognize it as such.

I think that while you’ve grown a lot since you first came out, a lot of your messaging remains the same. I think about how “Members Only” from 2013 sounds like it could be a song on Sundial. How would you describe your growth from then to now?
I think I tried to be a lot more concise in my songwriting this time, in terms of there being a very clear understanding of what some of the songs are about, you know what I mean? You can listen to “Beauty Supply” and be like, “Oh, this song is about this thing.” Whereas with a lot of my music, it could kind of tend to drift, not in the unknown because there were themes sort of, but it wasn't necessarily compacted in a way. And with this record, I did try to beef that up a bit. And I also, in line with the whole poetry thing, I really tried to rap. I'm rapping as best I can. So records like “Namesake” or “Oblivion,” and “Balloons,” I try to really get into a definitive rap pocket because I do like the freeform stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

I love that so much, but I try to keep it a little more put together. Like with “Black Mirror,” it is more stream of consciousness. But everything else, like “Hold Me Down” is very clear in terms of who I'm talking to, what the topic is. Which I think sometimes can make for a more easy listening experience because it's already a lot, so I don't want people to really have to fight too hard through the weeds to know what I'm talking about. And those are also some critiques I've gotten in the past. It's like people being like, “I don't know what you're talking about.” I don't either. [aughs.] Sorry.

When did the pivot happen from Factory Baby to Sundial?
I mean a lot of what I didn't want Factory Baby to be, Sundial ended up being anyways because I decided to move away from Factory Baby because I was really going to try to make an album just about political education, communism, socialism, but really specifically communism. This was when I was really deep in Black leftist Twitter. I was drinking that shit for breakfast. It was bad. [Laughs.] It was good, it was great, but it was a lot and I was losing myself as an artist. Songs like “Toxic” or “Boom Boom,” “Afrofuturism,” those kinds of songs I wouldn't have made and put them on that record. Like I was gonna try to make every song be about politics, and in a way, Sundial kinda is that anyway. But I was able to approach it from a more free place. Like I honestly was thinking that I was just making a mixtape to be honest. I really approached it like, “OK, you haven't put out anything in like five years. You just want to show people that you're still talented and that you can still rap, don't think too much into it.” And then I'm like, “OK, settler colonialism this, patriarchy that.” So it still comes out, but it's a lot more fun I think than what Factory Baby was going to sound like. Factory Baby was going to be just too heavy.

I remember you saying that you wanted to make Sundial for yourself and not to feed the Twitter timeline. Can you talk about that distinction?
It's funny because I say that, but a lot of what I talk about on Twitter is kind of in the record as well. But for me in the sense that I didn't really care how people were going to respond to it. And I think I have in the past put a lot of weight and stock into how people critique me on social media and the things that they say about just what I am into, what I believe in, whatever, and I'm trying to move away from that space and figuring out how I can get back into what I really love, which is music. 

I don't romanticize it though. Like it's not like, “Oh my God, this is, this is my everything,” because I have a different relationship with it now. I'm not 19 making my first song anymore. I'm doing it professionally, so it means other things to me. As much as yes, I just wanted to make an album, my mortgage was due, like I have things that I have to attend to. That's why I'm about to go on the road right now. I'm going to go on tour, so similar thing where it's like, “OK, yes, I'm doing it for me. I do love putting on shows and like pushing this art.” But at the same time, we have to be honest about the reality of this life.

What’s the meaning behind the title Sundial?
I thought about the album in a lot of different ways, but I thought of it as if, you know that movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once? So dealing with the multitude of all these different dimensions and stuff like that. I thought about what Telefone would sound like if it was created by a different Noname in a different dimension.

So I was just thinking of words and titles and things and then Sundial because the use of shadow and light to be able to like, tell us where we are, you know what I mean? Like what time it is, where we are, I thought it was cool and I feel like the album is very much that. I always have this play with the duality of light and dark in most of my content. So that's kind of where it came from. Obviously, when people listen to it, they're not going to know like, “Oh, this is what Telefone would have sounded like if it was made in a different dimension,” but even the cover art was trying to get to that too a little bit. That's why even sonically it sounds similar to some of my other music, it wasn't just because I don't have the range, I'm definitely going to drop some other shit.


Noname explains the concept behind 'Sundial.' Our interview with #noname about her new album is on Complex now

♬ original sound - ComplexMusic - ComplexMusic

One of the strongest things about the album is its central theme of how we’re all culpable to the system we operate in. You talk about those ideas on “Hold Me Down.” How did you reconcile that fact within yourself to reach that revelation on the track?
When I was really deep into figuring out my political views and as an adult away from just the dogmatic, “You're either gonna be Democrat or Republican.” Like, actually learning some political theory. I was following a lot of folks who actually are in political organizations and a lot of what they talk about is, when it comes to actual real solidarity work and real liberation work, you do have to join organizations and work and fight for the causes that you believe in. And so I tried to do that for a little bit and was devastated with myself when I was not able to continue in the way that some of my mutuals online were. It's not like I'm totally detached but it's just… I'm Noname, I don't like really being attached to shit.

"I believe in this music and I want to promote it, but at the same time even doing something like this is very contradictory to what I really believe in."

I don't become a different person just because I really love Black people and I want to see socialism happen. It just doesn't work like that and I thought it could. I'm still figuring it out. I believe in this music and I want to promote it, but at the same time even doing something like this is very contradictory to what I really believe in.

But I'm trying to put myself out there a bit more and form new experiences without just being very “anti” without actually engaging with it first and seeing. It's very easy to just be like, “That's really fucked up” from the crib. Let me participate a little bit and then ultimately decide.

I saw that you recently submitted Sundial for Grammy consideration. How did you get to that point?
Everything was different with this project from the beginning. I went and got funding from a company, I’m doing a deal with AWAL, a one-off, I’m back to being independent. Even with that, I do like majority ownership of my music and everything like that. But I'm still getting financial help, they're literally funding the project and the marketing for it.

I'm already playing a game, so to be like, I'm going to do all this and then not submit when they're offering me the submissions for free, it’s like, “Why not?” at that point, and it's highly unlikely that I’ll get one “nomination.” I mean, you never know. Y’all might see me tap dancing at the Grammys. [Laughs.]We will wait and see, but hopefully not.

I think rap fans have a problem with holding their favorites accountable, but you have no fear in doing so, especially on “Namesake,” where you call out some of the biggest names in music for being cogs in the machine. Did you think twice about doing that and was there any fear of backlash from ravenous fanbases after making that record?
I definitely thought several times about that, more than twice. I did because I know what those names mean to people. It's funny how like, if I said the sky was blue right now that wouldn’t be a callout because that’s a fact that we all know. Literally, all I did was remind people that a few of these [artists] played the Super Bowl. The only person I could say I called out is when I said I wasn’t fucking with Jay-Z. But when I was like “Go Rihanna go, go Beyonce go,” a lot of that I felt like was kind of misunderstood by folks. That wasn’t me calling out those people, that was me turning the camera back on the audience to be like, “This is what y'all look like.” We all be online talking about, “We not rocking with this.” It's like I said on the record, “Eat the rich, tax the rich” but when our favorite drops, it's time to come consume. Even with me, I’ve made several public statements about how I wasn't going to perform in front of predominantly white audiences and how I'm done with this shit. I'm tired of tap dancing for folks like I'm done, and then I take my goofy ass and go do Coachella like two years later and there are white folks running to the stage to come cheer for me. 

I have that problem with consumption too, where you’ll have this moral stance, and then that need to get the thing that you like kind of goes above and beyond. Like even with everything happening right now, I wonder if we really are about to ask our government to divest from Israel. Are we really about to ask them to stop funneling the war machine? Probably not if it means we can’t go to this thing that we go to or listen to this person or whatever the case. We not really about it, all of us, not just these celebrities who may be compromised in some ways, because some of them said they boycotted the NFL like Rihanna, I remember when the Kaepernick thing came out. She was very spoken about not rocking with it. The same as me, and that’s why I mentioned the Coachella thing and that’s why the song is called “Namesake,” because we share the same name, and I tried to write it in a way where it pointed at everybody. I spend a lot of time saying “Black capitalism is the worst thing. Capitalists are the worst people,” and I don't hold that belief because I have to pay my rent in some kind of way, we’re all tap dancing in this. But I tried to make a song where we look at everybody because at the end of the day these people couldn’t be platformed if there wasn’t hundreds of thousands of people hoisting us up. That’s what I tried to get at, I know everyone goes straight to the hook, but I had so much to say and I was rapping. I was really in the pocket on that record.

Sometimes I think rap fans also have an accountability issue, especially when their favorite artist could be in the wrong. I remember when you and Cole had your spirited debate a few years ago and I had to choose not to agree with him blindly.
That’s interesting because even with that I wouldn’t say he was necessarily wrong. I think we both could have went about it in a better way, but I love how you called it a spirited debate because it really wasn’t like a diss. It was like, “I have an ideological disagreement with you. I’m going to write about it on a song.” Which is like, we grown as hell, we both could have done better. I’m like, “Bro, I’m only on Twitter, I’m not even talking about you. It’s tweets, I thought you wasn’t on Twitter.” But he was rapping though, that nigga fake put me on. [Laughs.]. I didn’t get on Trevor Noah until after that happened, niggas didn’t know who I was! Nah, but I did get hella followers after that.

Have you two spoken since that time?
Yeah, I had a block party this past summer and I was hitting him to see if he could pull up on some special guest shit, and he was really about it. He wasn’t able to because he’s a father with children, but he was down to donate. We have prison chapters for our book club, so he was like, “I’m definitely down to support.” He’s really sweet. We do not have beef, we love Cole over here, it’s a Cole World over here.

Another song that stuck out to me was “Potentially The Interlude,” where you get into a lot of the things people project onto you. Can you talk about the making of that track?
I ended up having a conversation with my A&R Eddie Blackmon and Saba; I sent both an earlier version of the album and they both listened to it. I had the conversation with both of these people on the same day, even though I sent them the record at different times… and at this point, I'm like, I'm done with the record. This shit sounds amazing to me. I'm like, “I'm gonna drop it. It's gonna be good,” and both of their responses were like “It's good, but like just okay.” And I think there's this idea that they both had that I had the potential to do better, you know, and I think that's a large idea that a lot of people who consume my art or who follow me from a musical standpoint, they think I can continue to grow and be better and do better. I have the potential to be mainstream.

I have the potential to be the next whoever, or it's like, now that people see my politics and people see what I'm interested in and that I can use my platform to be outspoken about different things I care about, they're like, “Okay, she got the potential to be the next Harriet Tubman or like whoever is the most revolutionary Black lady you can think of in that moment.” And it's like, look, I'm not Angela Davis, I'm not Lauryn Hill. I'm a fuck nigga from Chicago. I'm just a regular person who likes to read occasionally. I care about people. I really, really care about Black people, and that's it. So I was pretty upset after having those two back-to-back conversations with them because I was really like, “My album is done like, how dare either one of y'all try to say this shit is okay?” and I have an ego. So I was like, well, I'm just going to take how I feel and put it into music, and then I made “potential” and also “Oblivion” was made in a similar headspace with me just being like, let me get into my, “I don't give a fuck, I am who I am” bag.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about you? What do people get wrong?
I think people think I literally live sleep and breathe socialist theory, like I'm just living in a forest fucking rubbing sticks together and just screaming at the top of my lungs. I feel like people just think I'm really serious too. A lot of people when they meet me, they're like, “Oh, you know how to smile. You can crack a joke.” I'm not like a politician, I’m just a regular person, and it didn't always used to be like that. I kind of transformed my page into all of my thoughts and opinions, so it’s fair that people feel that way, but that's why I'm trying to do more things in other ways to show other parts of my humanity. I'm normal as normal is gonna get.

"I'm not Lauryn Hill. I'm a fuck nigga from Chicago. I'm just a regular person who likes to read occasionally. I care about people. I really, really care about Black people, and that's it."

Do you feel an obligation to respond to people even though you often get misquoted and have these misconceptions?
I used to feel a heavy sense of, “I need you to know my intention behind everything I say. I need you to understand me” Now I really don't care. That's kind of what “Oblivion” speaks to is like, “I'm gonna just keep talking my shit. I really don't care.” Folks are going to consistently have opinions, I am one of those folks, and that's OK. That's absolutely great. I think more of it is needed. I do wish to see more leftist content coming out of hip-hop, like it used to be a lot more balanced in terms of the ideologies that got pushed. It's a lot of like entrepreneurial capitalism that gets pushed, which is fine if that's what niggas is into, but there's other people who are into other things. So I hope in the future, we do see more of those artists that are a little more to the left kind of get space and visibility because they're out there, they're just in the underground.

I think it’s evident in your music as well that you’re willing to stand 10 toes on what you believe in, but there have been moments where you go out of your way to respond to things. You responded on your IG Story a few months ago about the controversial guest verse that you had, did you feel like you had to do that?
I don't like when I'm being lied on, and I didn't really like how people were attacking me. I didn't like how, just because I did a song with someone, people were literally calling me an anti-Semite and a bunch of other things that I'm 1,000 percent not, so I don't like that type of stuff. Like I'll be 10 toes down to the fact that I don't want to perform for a predominantly white audience. There's a lot of things about white supremacy and the state that I critique on my social platforms. I critique settler colonialism, capitalism, these things, but I'm not what they said I was. So for me, I just felt like, don't lie on me. If you want to say I'm a clown for working with someone who you don't like call me a clown then, but don't put this false narrative out there about me. 

But even with responding, it's not like me saying that changed people's opinions. That's why now, I'm trying to get to a point where I really can just let things go because I kind of naively thought, “OK, I'll put this out there. I'll write this statement and people will understand,” and it's like it doesn't stop. And they weren't coming for him like they were only coming for me. There was no critiques for him at all.

And then you pointed out the hypocrisy of other artists working with him that didn’t get the same energy that you got.
I did another interview and the interviewer was kind of saying that he felt like people came at me harder because I'm so political, because people perceive me as standing for social justice. So to potentially work with someone who they feel have negative viewpoints about certain communities, they felt like that was really contradictory of me. Like, “How could you, you're supposed to be standing for the right causes and this is something we don't feel is right? How could you do this?” And I have those points of contradiction every day.

I pay more money in taxes than I've ever paid in my life because of my position right now as a rapper and I fucking hate the state. I really hate America as a place, as a nation-state. I critique it all the time and I'm sending them so much money, I have to sleep and live with that every day. So me doing a song with a person you don't like is the least of my worries in some ways, because I feel like there are other points in my life where I'm even a bigger hypocrite than that. Where I'm supporting institutions that I fundamentally, every core of me is dead set against. So, yeah, I kind of just was like, I'm gonna let y'all just squabble on the internet. I don't really care anymore. There's a lot going on in the world for us to be concerned. It's like, why are we concerned about rappers with everything going on in the world right now?

We really mad at a rapper and what he got to say when it's real people with real weapons and guns really killing people? Like priorities. And I think that's the weird thing too when it comes to hip-hop, I don't see it with other genres as much. They don't get cornered, they don't get questioned like that. With rappers, there's this expectation that we constantly have to speak about some cause, and I do think that is important. I think everybody who has a platform should be thinking very critically about how they are engaging their audience and the type of information that they're putting forth. I'm starting to have different opinions about, like, everybody should use their platform because we're seeing people are doing that and it's going either way. So we do have to be like, cautious. But I don't know if every single rapper is needing to speak on issues. 

I think your most redeeming quality, though, is that you’re not afraid to change your mind about something and grow, and this trait culminates in Sundial. What have been your thoughts on the response to the album now?
The general reception has been very, very positive. It seems like people really like the record, it got amazing critical reviews. So grateful, thank you critics. And then the fans are split, a lot of them are still upset with me because I didn't live up to their potential of what they thought I was supposed to be and the other fans seem to be happy, they seem to be pleased.

This record was more of a statement piece that I needed to get out there. This wasn’t supposed to be this grandiose album, even though it kind of is now and I think it's only that because we're not getting more dense music. A lot of the music is the same.


Noname wants to be one of the best rappers out after dropping 'Sundial,' and she hopes to drop another album next year. Our full interview with #noname is on Complex

♬ original sound - Complex - Complex

Is the next album in the works?
Oh yeah, I'm past Sundial and into the new album. I’m also looking for beats, so if you have beats, please send them my way because I'm definitely trying to rap. I would love to drop something in 2024, so fingers crossed.

Are there any updates on future Ghetto Sage music with Smino and Saba?
We're working! I can't speak for the collective because there are other members, but ideally, we will be putting something out hopefully next year. I think something is coming out very, very soon. We all have our own individual careers. Saba dropped an amazing album last year, Smino dropped the project last year, so they had to do their own tours and stuff. A lot of it was just like timing, but now once I get back, we're going to have a lot of time to get in and cook and we've already been scheduling some stuff. And I would say expect to see a little Ghetto Sage preview or sneak peek in the upcoming weeks actually.

You’ve always had different benchmarks for success. Now entering this new chapter of your career post-Sundial, what does success look like for you?
I think success for me is maintaining this wide-eyed wonder when it comes to just music and rapping. I think not becoming jaded by my engagement with the industry or lack thereof or whatever because there was a moment where you kind of get these ideas about where you're supposed to be, largely based on what the audience is telling you.

And if your career doesn't look like that, you have a sense of a feeling of inadequacy. And so I think for me, success is to just fully be as deeply comfortable and in love with music forever. I really do feel like how I felt back in the day making music. There was so much tension and it was so hard to make Room 25 from just an emotional place just because I was really emotional during that time. But I also felt like it's the sophomore album and I have to live up to this thing and it was like all this anxiety. With this, I really don’t care. Obviously, I want to maintain where I'm at financially. I don't really want anything else. I'm so blessed to be able to have a crib. I could take care of my folks as best I can, but I'm not really looking to be a millionaire. I'm not really looking for anything crazy. I'm comfortable. I'm so blessed. So if this could maintain and I could just get better at rapping, that would be success for me.

Latest in Music