On Telefone Chicago rapper Noname finds beauty in details even when the big picture is grim

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Noname - BRYAN LAMB
  • Bryan Lamb
  • Noname

Last year Chicago rapper Fatimah Warner, better known as Noname, explained to Greenroom magazine why she was going to call her forthcoming debut mixtape Telefone: "I like the idea of what it means to be on the phone with someone for the very first time and all its little intricate idiosyncrasies. From the awkwardness to the laughter or various intimate conversations you can have over the phone, I want my project to be very conversational." Noname dropped Telefone on Sunday, during LCD Soundsystem's headlining set on the last night of Lollapalooza.

The self-congratulatory hubbub surrounding Lollapalooza is deafening every year, and this year it was even louder—the fest grew to four days and celebrated its 25th anniversary. But Noname made some noise herself on Sunday evening with an inviting mixtape that's anything but noisy—Telefone is a breath of fresh air, its sparkling details calling up a lingering feeling of intimacy.

The deft production on Telefone helps keep these details in focus. The delicate instrumentals, full of shimmering keys and pitter-pattering percussion, mirror Noname's informal, magnetic delivery: they're both warm, affectionate, and low-key. (The beats are by ThemPeople, Saba of Pivot Gang, Monte Booker of Zero Fatigue, Cam O'bi of J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and suburban upstart Phoelix.) The songs float with a gentle grace among several genres—soul, hip-hop, gospel, funk, R&B—and work to dissolve the borders separating them. The subtle touches in the instrumentals highlight the small, playful gestures that enliven Noname's performances—such as the lilt in her voice on "Sunny Duet" that makes her sound like she's breaking into a smile.

Telefone beams with summertime cheeriness, but it's not a one-note affair—Noname infuses her buoyant songs with a complex array of emotions, including hints of despair, nostalgia, and confusion. Her vivid lyrics provide those big feelings with extra dimension, and she drops just in enough detail to let her quick-hit stories take their own shapes in your imagination. On "Reality Check" she raps, "Cigarettes on my mantel keep calling me by my first name / Lovin' me when I'm lonely." Noname says a lot about addiction, sadness, and comfort in those two lines—even her most personal material can resonate on a large scale. And the next line, "Pretending they really know name," could also parse as "really Noname"—a clever injection of open-ended ambiguity that keeps her listeners on their toes.

Like many recent Chicago rap releases, Telefone practically sweats the city out of its pores. You don't need to have met Brother Mike, who died in 2014, to relate to Noname's brief eulogy for him on "Yesterday," but her love for the late poet and rapper—who mentored a generation of Chicago artists—says a lot about what Chicago means to her. She sprinkles Telefone with youthful memories, whether uplifting or depressing, and balances her affection for her hometown with blunt descriptions of the hard realities that young people of color face daily. On the hook for "Casket Pretty" she raps, "All of my niggas is casket pretty / Ain't no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home / I hope to God that my telly don't ring." A brief sample of a baby pops up occasionally throughout the song (echoed by the line "Too many babies in suits"), and it sounds like the baby could be giggling or about to cry.

Even though death hovers over Telefone and loss shadows its brightness, Noname finds ways to look ahead. On "Yesterday" singer-composer Akenya, singer-producer the Mind, and Phoelix help her deliver the uplifting hook: "When the sun is going down / When the dark is out to stay / I picture your smile / Like it was yesterday." 
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

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