“I thought I was gon’ write a rap/ I thought I was gone,” Noname notes on “Freedom (Interlude)”. Throughout her debut mixtape, Telefone, the Chicago emcee tinkers and toys with verses and rhymes. Her songs echo slam poetry and spoken word without the pretense. Her voice may sometimes sound languid or insouciant, but when she overcomes the darkness, there’s a real playfulness in her language and delivery, stacking and stretching syllables like a kid with wooden alphabet blocks, bouncing words like a middle-schooler’s four-square trick shots.
However, there’s a weight and sadness that shades this childlike spirit, a common thread throughout Noname’s music, one that crystallized in the public conscious on 2013’s “Paradise”. If it doesn’t serve as an escape from the violence and political unrest in her hometown Chicago, then it at the very least uses a nostalgia for better times as a blueprint for an escape to come. The jazz juke groove and standout track “Diddy Bop”, featuring Raury and Cam O’bi, soundtracks thoughts of glowing orange Rugrats cassettes, Everybody Hates Chris, and Puffy himself. Noname reminisces about summer nights in the neighborhood, of misbehaving kids and their moms (“Oooooh you about to get your ass beat”), “B2K in the stereo,” and showing off the “new FUBU and A1s” on the playground.
Time has passed from those days, and hindsight and adulthood combine to juxtapose that nostalgia with somber images. Noname finds skeletons in her closet and examines them unflinchingly. On “Reality Check”, she recognizes the need to rise to opportunities because of her auntie’s fight with cancer and her grandmother’s stories of generations of injustice all the way back to slavery. She checks her Twitter page for “something holier than black death” on “Yesterday” and misses Brother Mike (a poet and mentor to Chicago’s hip-hop scene) “something heavy.” Later, on “Casket Pretty”, she mourns all of the black youth killed, tragically repeating that there are too many babies dressed in suits for their funerals. “Ain’t no one safe in this happy city,” Noname repeats in the chorus.
Her version of this reality isn’t played for the same harrowing, dead-eyed terror of drill stars like Chief Keef or Lil Durk, rather a sadness sinking deep. She feels the struggle and sadness of the whole city, of a generation, of a people in “Forever”, as she’s “trying to re-imagine abracadabra for poverty/ Like poof I made it disappear/ Proof I’m made of happiness.” Her personal darkness culminates in “Shadow Man”, as she, Saba, and Smino contemplate their own deaths and funerals, with a strange sense of acceptance that death could come at any moment. This fusion of life and death, purity and destruction, acceptance and struggle recur, even symbolized on the tape’s cover, as the child-like portrait of Noname is paired with both flowers and a skull. Death rings too close to home for black youth in America, taken from playing in parks joyfully to a funeral home without any warning.
That said, the production doesn’t always mirror the grim content. The album ebbs and flows through R&B, gospel, soul, and jazz, all complemented by a Jay Electronica-like stream-of-consciousness. These feel like thoughts scribbled in a diary both in the moment and able to reflect, fitting nicely somewhere between an Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill record. Her celebration and mourning for Chicago taps into many of the same feelings as Chance the Rapper, a fellow Chicagoan with whom she’s frequently collaborated. Similarly, the sunlight peaks in from time to time, bouncy synths and warm watercolor chords recalling sunny lullabies and soothing days spent cradled in mama’s arms.
Telefone shows a great sense of promise and complex beauty, Noname using her art to salve wounds — both her own and others. And while she offers plenty of black self-love and joy, there’s no sense of hubris or braggadocio, but rather an attempt to bring everyone up together. She’s not looking for “magazine covers drenched in gold” or “Grammy’s way too lofty.” Noname is content just sharing her story — “the little things I need to save my soul.”
Essential Tracks: “Yesterday”, “Diddy Bop”, and “Forever”