When Noname dropped Telefone a year ago, she proved herself a distinctive, thoughtful talent capable of balancing intellect and intimacy—two qualities I generally don’t associate with Lollapalooza. The mixtape’s quiet effervescence and limber, soul-influenced sound quickly made Noname one of the most sought-after artists in Chicago, though, so of course Lollapalooza’s bookers came calling. The festival has the pull to get almost anyone it wants, and there’s no question Noname is worthy—easily among the best acts on this year’s bill, as vital and relevant musically as Chance the Rapper or Lorde. She was one of the few bright spots in a dismal lineup dominated by forgettable festival-circuit regulars—given that it’s now asking more than $300 for a four-day pass, Lollapalooza ought to aim higher than reminding people that the Killers have songs besides “Mr. Brightside.” But going into her set on Sunday, I was worried about whether Noname’s low-key aesthetic could succeed at a sprawling, crowded festival bustling with distractions, where music often feels like the audience’s third priority—behind partying and, well, more partying.
Not that Noname appeared fazed. She stepped onstage with poise at just before 3 PM, after her four-piece band and a couple backup singers had warmed up the stage with a few minutes of a mellow melody. She launched quickly into the bubbling “Sunny Duet”—apparently more quickly than the sound engineers could accommodate. On Telefone her gentle rapping doesn’t rise far above the level of a whisper, and her warm tone makes her personal lyrics feel like a confidential conversation. At Lollapalooza, at least for the first minute she was onstage, that conversation was almost inaudible—it sounded like her microphone wasn’t even turned on.
Noname didn’t raise her voice to compensate but rather kept it cool while the engineers worked to boost her vocals in the mix. Sound continued to be an issue throughout the set, particularly with Noname’s guest vocalists—Eryn Allen Kane and Ravyn Lenae, who sang on “Reality Check” and “Forever,” respectively, were inaudible for half their stage time. Some elements of the arrangements, meanwhile, had the opposite problem: the pitter-patter percussion samples in “Forever” hammered down at a disorientingly high volume, which threw me off for much of the song.
If Noname was bothered, she didn’t let it show. She rapped like everyone was hanging on her every word—even if they couldn’t hear every word. On “Diddy Bop” she replaced Raury‘s guest verse with a new one of her own, and though I could only make out a few lines (about a former lover being a capitalist), I thought I felt a smoldering intensity welling up inside her reserved persona. My favorite spots in the set were when Noname and her band played around with their songs—for instance, playing a medley with the wistful “Bye Bye Baby” sandwiched between the two halves of the sober “Casket Pretty.” And because the musicians stripped down their parts, leaving lots of space between notes, Noname’s vocals came through clearly for a change.
That said, I doubt the message of “Casket Pretty”—which addresses the terrible rate at which Chicago’s young people of color die by violence—reached anyone new on Sunday. The audience members I could see were either rapt with attention (in which case I’m sure they already knew the words) or wrapped up in conversation. Behind me one teenager perched in a tree and chatted on his phone through the end of Noname’s set. But as thoroughly committed as he was to that conversation, Noname was just as invested in hers—and she was having it with all of us. She closed with the breezy “Yesterday,” with her band quieting down so that the fans in front could help her sing the hook. And for a minute, as those voices came together, it felt like we were in Noname’s world with her.