Noname – Telefone

Noname - Telefone

Noname – Telefone

Hip-hop fans have long been awaiting a debut project from Chicago rapper Noname. Formerly known as Noname Gypsy, Noname made a name for herself via a flurry of guest spots on songs from Chicago artists like Mick Jenkins and Chance The Rapper. Her talent was obvious  – but for years, listeners lived without a full-fledged project, and without a real idea of who Noname was. With Telefone, Noname presents a thorough and expressionistic self-introduction, as nuanced and intriguing as the self-portrait that decorates the album’s cover.

Production-wise, Telefone is a showcase for young producers like Cam O’bi, Phoelix, and Saba. The instrumentals resemble old school rap beats, but with the lush musicality of jazz and electronic music. “Freedom (Interlude)” and “Diddy Bop,” in particular, stand out; but all the songs perfectly suit Noname’s sing-song flow. The only downside is that all the beats on Telefone sound fairly similar. However, Noname is mature enough to limit her debut to thirty minutes, and within that time span there is enough variety to make the project as compelling sonically as it is lyrically.

Noname made her way into rapping via slam poetry, and her inclination towards the poetic is apparent from the get-go on Telefone. Her constant sing-song flow is subtly complex. She molds words and phrases to find the rhymes she wants, employs repetition and lyrical breaks to hammer home certain phrases. Content-wise, Telefone is more somber than your average hip-hop debut. And like the best poets, Noname conjures moods and images without directly telling the listener what to think, relying more on evocation and verbal painting to convey emotion.

Telefone is defined by Noname’s preoccupation with doubt, death, and the past. “Diddy Bop,” finds Noname wistfully recalling simpler times when “Her whole neighborhood hit the Diddy bop.” Just two tracks later, on “Casket Pretty,” she details the pain, fear, and resignation that accompanies constant black death, often at the hands of police, in Chicago. After a constant, rapid-fire flow opens the song, Noname raps “too many babies in suits/too many babies in suits.” She foregoes statistics and detailed descriptions, choosing to focus on the people who have to bury their babies.

On tracks like “Casket Pretty,” Noname uses “I” to describe a vast emotional world filled with pain and fear, connecting her own heartbreak to millions of others’. On other songs, she admits the listener into her heart of hearts, detailing personal struggles and aspirations that feel like hard-earned secrets. “Reality Check” finds Noname chastising herself for avoiding opportunities in the wake of her grandmother’s slavery: “You know they whipped us,” she tells herself, summoning her granny’s voice. One song later, on “Freedom (Interlude),” she raps “What a pretty lady in the valley of the shadows/I’m thinking she lost a battle/I’m thinking she found the bottle.” But underneath all the melancholy is hope. On “Forever,” the hook repeats: “They ain’t tryna’ see us shine, shine/Bullet on our time, time/But fuck it, we’ll live forever.” Noname exudes quiet, supernatural purposefulness throughout Telefone, giving listeners strength even as she laments death’s constant presence.  

Telefone’s cover art depicts Noname in simple pastel colors. Her face is the most prominent feature, gazing calmly from against a light purple background. But complicating the portrait is a skull perched on top of her head, and flowers that reach above her ear. We get the impression that this is Noname as she sees herself. Haunted by death; striving for life; troubled, but refusing to despair. After listening to Telefone, listeners will be able to picture her just as vividly.