And I know the money don’t really make me whole / The magazine covers drenched in gold / The dreams of granny in mansion and happy / The little things I need to save my soul.
That’s how Telefone, the debut mixtape from Chicago-based rapper Noname, kicks off. Those lines get right down to business by hitting on the tape’s core focuses – faith and death.
If you’re like me, you were first introduced to Noname (Noname Gypsy, previously) through “Lost”, where she provided a smoothly-complementary verse on the tender cut from Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Beyond another back-and-forth feature on the criminally slept on “Israel” from Chance’s Surf-era of Soundcloud releases, I didn’t hear anything new from her until Telefone, her debut mixtape, when it dropped at the beginning of the month.
And wow, Telefone is a gem of a debut. The tight production team creates a cohesive, signature sound that immediately glues the tape together. For Telefone, Noname worked with three main producers, Cam O’bi (“Cocoa Butter Kisses”, “Free Lunch”), Saba (“Everybody’s Something”, “Angels”), and the less-prolific Phoelix. Fans of Acid Rap will recognize the warm keys, melodic bass, and boom-bap-influenced drums, but Noname creates something entirely her own here. She thrives when sitting back in the pocket with a laid-back flow, and her spoken-word tone belies a subtle melodicism that adds depth to each track.
Once the initial impression of vocal flatness fades, Telefone is revealed to be one of the most stunningly tender and beautiful releases of the year, and that’s not being graded on a curve against something like Coloring Book. When compared to the wave of cartoonish maximalism peers like Chance and Young Thug have harnessed to great success, her vocal delivery feels like a kind of strategic minimalism that makes every minor inflection and emphasized syllable feel powerful by comparison.
Through that doing-less-is-more maxim, along with a knack for telling abstract stories by assembling a collage of small, tactile details and descriptions, Noname creates a narrative that builds in tension as the album progresses, rapping about ambition, summer days, police violence against black youth, and most of all, death. On first impression, it feels like Noname simply brings a relaxed glow to the bright tracks and a calm sorrow to the somber cuts, but the layers go deeper than that.
“Sunny Duet”, one of the many Telefone songs where the production naturally radiates warmth, is a kind-of love story told through metaphor and anecdote. The lyrics alone make it difficult to tell how it begins, or how it ends; “We can dance a little, if you’d like to/My vagabond’s a lonely road, a celebrated haiku,” lines toward the end of the song, leave the success of the relationship uncertain. But that’s not the point on Telefone. Her playful delivery, enhanced by the energy of the wordplay in the song, is balanced by vague lyrics, and maybe that yin-yang paints a more vivid story.
I got my candy cane / My name is hella pimping too / You could watch a player move / Or we could call this ice cream in my Sunday sweater / Patent leather tethered to a fancy car.
The gravity of the subject matter of Telefone intensifies as it progresses until it peaks at “Bye Bye Baby”, where Noname sing-raps about an abortion. The cool delivery she specializes in feels purposely transparent here, like the delivery is just a thin shield under which grief and sadness and pain swim. Her word choice, the softness of her voice, her lilting tone all contribute to the feeling that she’s rapping about her baby into a microphone in a sterile studio, but to her baby. It’s one of the most profoundly emotive songs I’ve heard this year.
From that emotional climax, Telefone resolves and finds conclusion in “Shadow Man”, a beautifully textured hymn with the most soulful hook of 2016 about death that still, somehow, incorporates a bouncy fun, like Noname (along with Saba and Smino, who are remarkably on point tone-wise with their verses) has found peace in rapping about death and can appreciate the irony and silliness of life from this side.
Anyone can appreciate the wordplay, creative flow, and melodicism of Telefone in a single listen. But repeated listens bear greater fruit – Telefone is one of the best releases this year, let alone one of the best debuts. In a year where The Life of Pablo and Coloring Book were hailed as the return of gospel in hip-hop, I am afraid Telefone may fly slightly under the radar. Noname is one of the most intriguing, deceptively vivid storytellers to emerge this year – put a little effort in immersing yourself into Telefone.
“Bless the nightingale/Darkness keep you well,” repeats as Telefone glides to a finish. That refrain is mirrored by the album cover, a vivid oil painting of Noname in front of a pastel pink background, stonily gazing upward, where a skull sits upon her head, flowers blooming to her side. If there is joy and soul to be found in looking death in the face, this is how it’s done.