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Noname – ‘Telefone’

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The voice you know.

When Noname (fka Noname Gypsy) raps, she swims in the bleakness of a life that’s seen a lot of death and change. But even while reliving heartbreak her voice is soothing—resigned but optimistic, weary but hopeful. Perhaps it is a credit to all of her years spent writing and performing poetry as part of the YOUmedia Program for Young Creatives at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library: Her skipping cadence and ability to dance around words while establishing that each one is equally important are poet’s skills, making you listen to every word without ever seeming overdetermined or obvious. You’re just gripped, trying to catch everything coming at you—and Noname (real name Fatimah Warner) gives you a lot.

Her version of this reality isn’t played for the same harrowing, dead-eyed terror of drill stars like Chief Keef or Lil Durk, rather a sadness sinking deep. She feels the struggle and sadness of the whole city, of a generation, of a people in “Forever”, as she’s “trying to re-imagine abracadabra for poverty/ Like poof I made it disappear/ Proof I’m made of happiness.” Her personal darkness culminates in “Shadow Man”, as she, Saba, and Smino contemplate their own deaths and funerals, with a strange sense of acceptance that death could come at any moment. This fusion of life and death, purity and destruction, acceptance and struggle recur, even symbolized on the tape’s cover, as the child-like portrait of Noname is paired with both flowers and a skull. Death rings too close to home for black youth in America, taken from playing in parks joyfully to a funeral home without any warning.

That said, the production doesn’t always mirror the grim content. The album ebbs and flows through R&B, gospel, soul, and jazz, all complemented by a Jay Electronica-like stream-of-consciousness. These feel like thoughts scribbled in a diary both in the moment and able to reflect, fitting nicely somewhere between an Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill record. Her celebration and mourning for Chicago taps into many of the same feelings as Chance the Rapper, a fellow Chicagoan with whom she’s frequently collaborated. Similarly, the sunlight peaks in from time to time, bouncy synths and warm watercolor chords recalling sunny lullabies and soothing days spent cradled in mama’s arms.

Telefone shows a great sense of promise and complex beauty, Noname using her art to salve wounds — both her own and others.

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