Chicago artist, activist, poetess, Noname brings us her long awaited debut project Telefone just in time for the summer to wind down, and just in time for a contemplative mood to settle over the sunny days.
After years of teasing us with smooth features and promises that a project was on the way, Noname finally delivered with a mixtape that captures the essence of her as a creative. Between the delicate delivery of her spoken word style and the nuanced production, it is definitely time to take thirty minutes and stop sleeping on Telefone.
Hearing the first track on this project, it’s clear that there’s a huge wave of relief pushing the cut. The listeners are relieved that the wait is over, and Noname sounds relieved as her voice hits a few breathy crescendos on “Yesterday.” Beyond relief, this song is drenched in Noname’s authenticity, especially over the intro where she denounces money in favor of “the little things [she] needs to save [her] soul.” As the second verse exposes her hurt, perhaps even the city’s hurt, over Brother Mike’s death, we come across Noname’s main undertaking on this project: painting death in pastel shades.
There is a lot of death to be discussed on this project. Noname manages to sustain the eloquence of the record, while being extremely forward about police brutality and death on “Casket Pretty.” She communicates fear and pain through the repeated line “too many babies in suits,” meaning too much of the Chicago youth is dying. The line could also speak for all the children that also lose their families to the violence. On “Bye Bye Baby,” Noname describes the death of her unborn child through an abortion. While an emotionally taxing topic, Noname somehow delivers the story in a creative and lush manner. There is so much complexity in her signature flow, which allows it to be bright with its inflections and still serious at the core. Without question, Telefone is much more than a debut project, it is a deep look into how Noname has been coping.
Themes of coping transition well into the many allusions Noname makes to alcoholism throughout the project, and even over the old cover art. An earlier iteration of Telefone featured a drawn Noname at the telephone booth next to a rundown liquor store, aptly fitting the lyrics on “Freedom Interlude:” “What a pretty lady in the valley of the shadows/I’m thinking she lost the battle/I’m thinking she found the bottle.” The lines come off detached from the character, yet intuitive to a point where it reads as Noname talking about a prior version of herself. Perhaps she’s giving us hints as to why Telefone had to be delayed over and over. Such an honest reflection is as inviting as it is a gesture that she trusts her listener. Noname ends a verse by saying that this “is a song about redemption,” and on a greater scale an album that is meant to be her redemption.
The production over “Freedom Interlude” showcases a hyper attention to sound that helps supplant Noname’s tempered flow. The sweet harp grooves mimic the feel of a smooth night sky just after the sun goes down, but its glow remains. Then we hear these subdued claps peppered between the left and right of the mix, something like lightning bugs. This project does not struggle to establish and disseminate mood. Perhaps Telefone harnesses emotion a little too well. For all of the gentle and crisp moments, there is the worry that this project is approaching monotony. All of the flows Noname puts forward are comforting in how familiar they are, but after so many years it’s not outrageous for us to expect her to have pushed herself a little more sonically.
That being said, there are a lot of strong decisions on this record, namely the choice in features. Looking at Raury on “Diddy Bop,” his verse feels like a welcome and necessary additional to the track. He’s not outshining Noname, but instead creating a fresh moment on the track. The same can be said for TheMIND on “Sunny Duet,” where his quirky enunciations over the hook help give the song an addicting quality. Perhaps the best feature on the project is the omitted Chance The Rapper feature. Noname did not need a Chance feature, and she knew it. This project is her moment, and hers alone. There will be plenty of times for collaborations between the two of them in the future, but Telefone was not the place.
On this project, Noname sounds accomplished, direct, and masterful. She has polished her craft to a level not many of her contemporaries can compete with. She has made death sound like a silent summer morning. She has made a project that is beautiful, elegant, and entirely her own. Noname is ready, “Noname on the come-up,” and her next move is critical. All she needs to do is layer some risks into her style and Noname is in a position to be one of the most celebrated artists of our generation.