On Noname and Selling “Pain for Profit”

We all deserve to be more than the sum of our pain.
Author:
Publish date:

“A little more pain, that’s just better music” —Mac Miller, “Planet God Damn”

Noname almost passed out drinking. Noname almost died in room 25. Noname rapped about abortion. We love that about her. 

Chicago’s poetic darling, a rapper with a fortified and beloved approach, Noname wears her wounded heart for all to gorge on in the way we hungry listeners love to do. From her first appearance on Chance The Rapper’s “Lost” in 2013, to her string of loosies and her two bare albums, 2016's Telefone and 2018's Room 25, it is Noname’s honesty that has drawn us to her music. Writing through trauma, Noname pulls no punches and we admire and encourage her forward approach. Yet the relationship we have with Noname and artists with her caliber of pen has the propensity to turn sinister. What we have done ever so subtly as we consume her music is suggest that we only want the spoils of her struggle. Noname knows as much, making the commodification of pain the subject of her first offering of 2019: “Song 31.”

All my everything is for you,” Noname begins “Song 31.” She is not spiteful or resigned; rather, Noname is accepting and keenly observing the ways in which we make her being disposable. She continues: “I sell pain for profit and I feel prophet watching / Everything is for everything, rhymin' with casualty.” Her meaning is born of double entendres. Jesus watches as she sells her pain, but the weight of his gaze implies a generational impetus to do just that. A natural-born orator on a sociological tip with her writing, Noname evidently feels the drive to catalog her life and share her stories, regardless of how dark her circumstances. No one is actively forcing her to tread paths littered with broken bottles and lives lost, but we have to wonder, would Noname’s music feel the same if she abandoned these roads and veered into another direction? And to ask a question of the obvious answer: Whose fault is that?

Capitalism tells us that we are nothing more than the sum of our traumas, that our humanity can only be proved by parading what hurts us until someone takes note that we bleed, too. This, of course, is even worse for women of color, especially when we consider America’s sordid history of dehumanizing and demeaning these women. We cannot overlook how relegating Black women specifically to the lowest rung of society and stripping them of their social capital plays an important role in Noname’s “rhymin’ with casualty.” She raps about death, her raps are deadly, and the process of rehashing her traumas over and over for our consumption stands to be killer. Despite these consequences, sadly, this approach to her music helps Noname regains the social capital of which she is otherwise stripped. It is a confounding situation, where the question and location of agency is ever-shifting.

All of these sentiments are echoed by Phoelix, who sings: “Truth be told / I wear my heart on my sleeve / Watch you sit it on the shelf / Now my body got cold.” This hook sets up Noname as selfless in her approach, which she is, and us as ravenous and irreverent consumers, which we are. She gives us her heart, and we drain it for our purposes, and we shelve her, and we move on, but the long-term consequences of the emotional labor Noname performed do not evaporate so easily. Noname is left to deal with her emotional fallout, and we dust our hands of her when the album comes to a close. Hardly seems fair, no? But again, on “Song 31,” Noname is not angry, she’s merely forcing us to face our habits.

“Cocaine was the muse of Faces, along with a plethora of other forms of self-medication that shouldn’t be taken together. My days weren't like his, we weren't performing any of the same reckless actions, but something connected, I felt him more than ever before. Mac needed rehab, not downloads. Mac needed help, not praise. I gave him my download, and I gave him my praise, but I felt guilty watching him self-destruct, and yet, being enamored by the flame he made. The last flame of life.” —Yoh, “Mac Miller, Faces & Why We're Attracted to Artists Killing Themselves

In 2017, DJBooth’s Yoh penned a brilliant exposé on why we demand artists hurt in order to reach their highest peaks of artistic expression. We connect and are attracted to pain, he posited, at the expense of the artist, and we tend to realize this only seconds away from the close of their final hour. “Song 31” stands as the companion piece to this phenomenon. In her methodical way, Noname is sending up a flare, blasting a warning signal, and demanding that we be better as consumers of music. Confession does not entitle us to artists, it simply endears us to them. We love their pain, but more importantly, we must love their spirit. The alternative, as we saw with the late Mac Miller, is horrifically sad.

Noname’s “Song 31" is less of a cry for help than Faces, than, say, Juice WRLD, who sings of drugs doing surgery on his organs. Really, the track is a call-out. Noname attacks the gluttony of the country, and our nefarious consumerist tendencies. She cuts down the meat industry, “slaughtering for the yummy,” and while the image is clear, we are not far off in imaging this is a comment on the music industry at large. Perhaps even more revolutionary is the resolution Noname comes to on the second verse: “I sell pain for profit, not propaganda.” As in, if this is how the game must be played, then Noname is securing her bag for no other reason than because the money is flowing and she feels comfortable with her past. She has no ulterior motive or agenda, and she has no need to convince you of her humanity. Noname is secure enough in herself to know that her pain music exists for her own absolution, not to satisfy fans. Their connecting to the work is merely a bonus.

“Song 31” is the pain-for-profit best-case scenario. The track implies that Noname is on to us, but she won’t let our hunger for her pain dictate the music she makes. Our interests align now, but she won’t pander. In fact, she hasn’t pandered. Room 25 is such a resounding success because the range of the album is impressive. We get detailed notes on how Los Angeles and trauma have shaped Noname right alongside enthused posse cuts and a track about the joys of having sex. For sure, Noname is a bruised soul, but she is much more than that, and with “Song 31,” with this interrogation of what we want from her versus what she has the power to give us, she continues ever-forward as one of the best and most multifaceted rappers.

There’s a line between cathartic release for the artist, and having to sell pain because we demand artists ache for our own selfish needs. It is an ingrained thought pattern, but a dangerous one nonetheless. We all deserve to be more than the sum of our pain. Artists should not have to sell pain for profit, and we do not have to demand they do so in order to appraise them as human and connect with their music. We can and should celebrate an artist’s joys as much as we do their struggles. After all, there is more to life than sorrow. In the case of Noname, she does not give us a choice. Her joy and her pain unfold in the same turn, and we learn to love them both. With “Song 31,” Noname teaches us as much. Her lesson is a sonic treat, and a high to kick off the new year: though Capitalism tells us we must bleed to count, for the sake of the artist and for the sake of the music, let’s not feed that beast.

Related