You could say that Noname’s first release, Telefone, is an optimistic one. With its bright yet low-key mixture of jazz-infused hip-hop, the album flows breezily and lightly. Noname—formerly known as Noname Gypsy and still Fatimah Warner—raps with a natural ease that comes from performing slam poetry with the YOUmedia Project, a group for artistic youth in Chicago, where she grew up creating alongside other talents such as Chance the Rapper (whose song “Lost” from Acid Rap features a verse from her). Her fluid voice organically lapses into neo-soul melodies, such as in the pop chorus on the opener, “Yesterday,” which says, “When the sun is going down / When the dark is out to stay / I picture your smile / Like it was yesterday.” Along with this and other wistful memories of the past, Telefone contains other positive messages: “You are powerful” (“Reality Check”), and “Love is all I need” (“All I Need”).
Coexisting with the optimism, though, is a weight of sadness that sits like the gray skull atop the childlike portrait on the album’s cover. Though the bright piano trills, muted beats, and mostly mellow rapping set the mood of Telefone, it’s the direct emotional lyrics—social, political, and personal—sitting among those features that establish the real tone. Much of the album addresses childhood and growing up, which, for Noname, encompasses the experiences of being black, being a woman, and coming of age against the backdrop of a neighborhood in a city with systemic inequalities, with violence. When Noname sings of the past on “Yesterday,” she expresses a complicated wistfulness: “Don’t grow up too soon… / Don’t let the cops get you.”
Telefone is a staggeringly personal work, but it’s the other characters and voices that define it. Some of those are the guest rappers and singers strewn throughout the album, an impressive list of ten artists that includes the smooth, soulful romance of Xavier Omä and Eryn Allen Kane’s singing and the sharp crack of Saba’s rapping. Noname filters other voices through her own, citing artists who came before her and people in the neighborhood, even those who ended up in caskets. Some of the most prominent voices are from the women who preceded her—her mother, who told her to come home before the streetlights come on (“Dibby Bop”), her aunt who fought cancer, and her granny, who, in response to the artist’s musical aspirations, would “Turn up in her grave and say / ‘My granny really was a slave for this?'” (both on “Reality Check”). Though quiet and streamlined, the album’s many voices make it rich and dimensional.
The title of the album speaks to all of this. Throughout, the telephone appears in different contexts, ranging from a phone call signaling opportunity in “Reality Check” to the hope that the “telly don’t ring” to inform the answerer of a lost loved one in “Casket Pretty.” Capturing all of this range—anxiety, joy, sadness, hope—in a concise image on straightforward record, Noname and her Telefone paint a portrait of family, a neighborhood, and a rich inner life.