Neo-soul hip hop artist Noname’s long-awaited debut mixtape, “Telefone,” is a personal narrative of life and death, youth and age and beginnings and ends set to a colorful Chicago backdrop.
After working with a number of notable Chi-town artists, including Chance the Rapper, Jesse Boykins III and Mick Jenkins, Noname assumes a distinctive and introspective voice amid the resurgence of neo-soul and gospel in American hip hop.
Likely due to her spoken word past, Noname’s storytelling is natural and vibrant, at times resembling rhythmic conversation more than outright rap. Her vocal inflections range from soothing murmurs to exciting tongue-twister-like flows.
Noname’s soundscape is embellished with light, dreamy synths and plucky xylophone melodies and bass lines. She also uses thoughtful jazz piano progressions.
Listening to “Telefone” feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket; warm neo-soul envelops listeners in comfort, but when Noname’s subject matter approaches darker topics, like police brutality and the high death rate of underprivileged Chicago youth, the listener is startled with a jolt.
This striking juxtaposition is obvious in the album art, which depicts a young Noname gripping a bouquet of flowers while an ominous skull sits directly on her head. Quite fitting, seeing as many of Noname’s happiest and most significant life moments are affected by elements of death and solemnity.
Noname transports us to her childhood with the warm, sunny “Diddy Bop,” a song that is infectious and joyful but nonetheless tinged with the realities of life in Chicago: “This sound like growing out my clothes / With stars in my pocket, dreaming ‘bout making my hood glow.”
In “Forever,” Noname yearns for a more perfect world, passionately imploring, “I’m trying to re-imagine abracadabra for poverty / Like poof I made it disappear / Proof I’m made of happiness.”
The first track of the album, “Yesterday,” finds Noname at her grandmother’s funeral, pondering her own mortality and imagining her grandmother taking flight like a sparrow on her way to the next life.
In the final track, “Shadow Man,” Noname confronts death head-on, vividly describing her future funeral, where Kanye West will read her eulogy, and detailing how she’ll soon see the King just like in a “Disney fable.”
Even in youth, death is a constant presence for Noname. This is clear in the track “Casket Pretty” where she describes how “ain’t no one safe in this happy city” because of the “badges and pistols [rejoicing]in the night.”
Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is “Bye Bye Baby,” a bittersweet lullaby to Noname’s unborn child.
The track features sentimental jazz synths, punctuated by a sample of a baby cooing. In it, Noname grapples with her decision to have an abortion, experiencing painful remorse but finally concluding that she deserves to be happy. She tenderly confesses that “some give presents before they’re even ready,” and asserts that God will welcome her child in a “play date up [in]heaven.”
“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,” Noname said, according to a 2015 interview with Greenroom Magazine. “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 certainly achieved this goal with “Telefone,” baring her soul and effortlessly capturing her experience as an African-American woman in 10 unforgettable songs.
With “Telefone,” Noname solidifies her place in the American hip hop scene as an unafraid poet, a vivid storyteller and an especially creative artist to watch in the future.
“Telephone” is available on SoundCloud and YouTube.