Critical Voices: Noname, Telefone

September 5, 2016

Photo courtesy of Twitter @noname

Most people’s first introduction to Noname, formerly Noname Gypsy, was her feature on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Her unique flow and poetic lyrics made her a standout on “Lost.” Three years later, Noname’s long awaited album, Telefone,  fully demonstrates the sound she has developed since her first break-out verse. The album paints dreamy and meandering pictures of grief, ambition, happiness, and love. All of the tracks have a stream-of-consciousness quality that makes the album feel extremely intimate and relatable. As Noname’s first full solo project, Telefone stands as a testament to her unique style and talent.

The first track ,“Yesterday,” sets the tone for the album. Noname raps about loss and “the little things I need to save my soul.” She makes specific reference to the death of Brother Mike, a mentor and an influential figure in the lives of many up-and-coming Chicago hip-hop artists. Noname delicately harmonizes with Akenya and TheMIND on the chorus, singing “When the sun is going down/when the dark is out to stay/I picture your smile like it was yesterday.” The track is pained, filled with grief and hopeful all in the same breath.

In “Diddy Bop,” Noname draws up memories of her youth. The chorus sounds like a summer in Chicago. Cam O’bi sings “This sounds like growing out my clothes/With stars in my pocket dreaming about making my hood glow” while Noname conjures imagery of wearing FUBU and KSWISS, juking in the back seat to B2K, and incurring her mother’s wrath “like Ooooh, you about to get your ass beat.” The song is a glimpse into Noname’s past. “Diddy Bop” is followed up by one of the most positive songs on the mixtape, the extremely sunny “All I Need.” The song is a shot of pure positivity and contentment. Rapping over a sample of the absolutely adorable “Apparently Kid,” Noname talks about being in love and being generally happy. She sings, “you remind me to love myself for the principle/For the kid inside, til the end of time.” The tone, combined with Noname’s dizzying flow, makes “All I Need” the perfect summertime chill out song.

The unique production, led in part by producer Cam O’bi, enhances the whimsical sound of Telefone. The album is filled with unexpected elements that help break up a tone that verges on homogenous.  On tracks like “Forever” and “Sunny Duet”, syncopated drum beats make for a delightfully surprising listening experience. “Reality Check” makes use of a xylophone to create an airy tone while “Freedom Interlude”’s use of simple highlighted handclaps makes the track pop. Each track adds its own fresh element that elevates the whole album.     

Towards the middle, the album shifts in focus to the more societal issues plaguing her mind that are only hinted at in previous tracks. The tracks “Casket Pretty” and “Bye Bye Baby” turn her attention to gun violence and abortion, respectively, while “Forever” talks about the unique experience of trying to succeed as a person of color. In “Casket Pretty” she repeatedly states “I hope you make it home/I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring.” A late night phone call is a constant source of fear for her. Her background in poetry helps her express these thoughts and emotions. The line, “Too many babies in suits” references both those who have lost their lives to this violence and those who mourn this loss.

The album find success in Noname’s ability to tackle serious topics while still keeping positivity at it’s core. The tracks on Telefone run the gambit in tone and topic but all throughout they have an uplifting quality to them. They leave one with the feeling that although there is much to worry about, personally and societally, there’s always a something positive and brighter to look to.  

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