Bryan Allen Lamb

Noname’s Gentle Glow

Notes on the Chicago poet-rapper’s life-affirming 2017 tour

Noname’s shine is a soft glow. When she’s in front of an adoring crowd, she’s lit by a comforting orb-aura of mutual appreciation rather than blinding, incandescent star-power. There's less flare, more flicker between her and her people. Having taken three years to craft Telefone, her breakout debut from mid-2016, 25-year-old Chicagoan Fatimah Warner has a measured finesse as a songwriter. She's deeply thoughtful, precluding any flash-in-the-pan suggestions. She craves anonymity — as if her moniker wasn’t enough of a tip off, her URL is nonamehiding.com; she’s the type of artist who, in interviews, cautions that “I don't typically do interviews” — but she seems to have found a spark in her role as musician. It’s invigorating to witness a quiet star attempt to nurture that quality in front of us, a vulnerable thing to do in public. Noname onstage is a performance, or plausibly a real-life reflection, of Warner negotiating her place in the world, through musical skill and an acute sensibility of the personal political, in real time. Watching this is particularly rewarding to those who can relate to her intimacy, who tend to come to their brightest understandings through soft talks and ruminations.

On Telefone, Noname speaks in enunciated mumbles, rewarding close listening; when she’s onstage, that has to translate to speakerphone. At a recent show at Seattle's Crocodile club, a chant of “When I say NO, you say NAME” was initiated by a group of teenage girls before her set, quickly spreading through the crowd. It got her band onstage, and they began an instrumental introduction to set the scene for Noname to bound out into a nice, warm reception from the chanting fans. Instead, she ambled out toward the mic a bit sheepishly, until the moment she locked into the crowd’s energy, looking toward a couple of fans who were ready to rap along immediately, within her first verse. Eye contact was her green light to go off. Throughout the show, Noname maintained a knack for locating that one fan looking to connect, and you could sense that she was finding her thrive every time she got that recognition back.

A few songs into the set, she stepped offstage to return in a floor-length red sequined cape with NONAME patched on the back, plus Bootsy Collins sunglasses, to sing a part of the Isley Brothers' “Contagious.” It was like something you’d pull out of your costume bin to play with after school with your friends, and one of a handful of moves that evoked an intimate environment onstage — a home, one with a family, the eternal rec-room kick-back. Even the stage's arrangement helped communicate this feeling: Noname was in the center, circled by her live band, and a side table supporting a small lamp and her drink was adjacent. It was noticeably a wicker side table, and not, say, a stool supplied by the venue. Telefone isn’t the party; it’s the friend’s house where you go to chill out when you both decide you're done with that party. It is lamplight, which is a comfortable approximation of a spotlight for Noname.

The tempered personality in her flow could read, without focused listening, as a too-loose scrawl. But with closer examination, her acuity in finding meaning in personal experience, making clear the tiniest moments of joy that got her through, comes through. Both onstage and on record, Noname's sharpest reflections are framed in tender terms. Think of how she talks about police brutality in "Yesterday," packing her experience into a centimeter's flick of thumb: “Search my Twitter page for something holier than black death.” Or the refrain of "Casket Pretty," which unloads entire psychologies of racial violence into a small, tragic compliment: “All of my n****s is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in his happy city.” Everyone at the show knew these lines, and all the rest, by heart. Akenya, Noname’s keyboardist, took the chorus of "Reality Check" as the crowd sang back at them: “Don’t fear the light that dwells deep within / You are powerful beyond what you imagine / Just let your light glow."

In her gray sweater, red skirt, and knee-highs, Noname took a few playground skips around the stage. No doubt, Telefone is in part an album about childhood and its end: “I wish I was a kid again,” she raps with a sigh before the chorus of "Yesterday," tying a loop back to the work of her frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper, who has spent plenty of lyrical energy flipping through childhood memories. For both of them, skipping along that fine line of nostalgia and naïveté is about staking claim to the things that are important to you before the powers that be draw up their own maps on your behalf.

When you’re spending your early adulthood adjusting to the world as it is in 2017, the everyday question becomes, Is this just the standard-issue horribleness of growing up, or is this a uniquely horrible time in which to be growing up? Confronted with that, it can feel vital to find someone your age who speaks to what you're feeling — which seemed to be the case for the all-ages audience at Noname’s Seattle performance. If her music moves you, it's to somewhere gentler.