The Darkness And Beauty Of Noname’s 'Telefone'

Life and death are in a delicate balance in the Chicago poet and rapper’s debut mixtape

Death looms over 24-year-old Chicago poet-turned-rapper Noname’s debut mixtape, Telefone. All deaths are different, and the death present on this project is of a specific kind: the death of teenagers and children, sometimes babies. It is a death that feels both unstoppable for its sheer swell — murders in Chicago were up 72 percent in the first three months of 2016 from the year prior, many of the victims under 18 — but also unbelievable for its sheer perversity. No one expects to see children die. Even if thousands do, and we watch it over and over again, something in our deepest selves is wired so that it must always feel like a deviation from nature. This kind of death is a death of incongruities, of maddening opposites.

“All of my n****s is casket pretty,” Noname tells us. In many ways, the line is a concise and proper aesthetic summary of Telefone. The production is soft and silken like the satin lining of a coffin. Harmonies are rich and ornate like flowers bunched in wreaths, wafting a sweetness that threatens to offend the senses but never quite does. Vocals, lacking reverb or effects, are warm and intimate like bodies packed into a funeral home where music plays soft and the suffering is deep and muted. Lyrics are close and loving, flesh and bone, like the hand of a grieving grandmother that you hold in yours. The album feels haunted, like when you peer into an open casket at the newly evacuated face of a person who once was, whose eyes are in repose, who is perfect and pretty, who is both immediate and forever unreachable. There is a heavy and quiet bereavement to the whole affair.

In some cases, Noname makes these deaths plain. The album’s opening track, “Yesterday,” stunts as an existential meditation but quickly reveals itself to be a eulogy for “Brother” Mike Hawkins, the poet and writer who ran the YOUMedia poetry and arts program at the Chicago Public Library where Noname and a slew of the city’s most vital artists — Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Donnie Trumpet, and Vic Mensa — incubated as teens. “When the sun is going down / When the dark is out to stay / I picture your smile / Like it was yesterday,” goes the chorus, a cascade of harmonies falling over a chord progression that tumbles over itself. In some ways, these lines betray the core of this album’s driving beauty: the arresting juxtaposition between the innocence of childhood and the weight of mourning. Noname skillfully toggles between these two feelings, and sometimes overlays them in a way that manages to shed light on the vast spiritual and social failure of a city in which teens die every day. No 24-year-old should have as many dead peers as she does, and her deft writing shows us, rather than telling us, what the emotional cost of that is.

In other cases, death simply overshadows the room, throwing its umbrage on everything around. The resulting pressure is cast in stark relief on “Reality Check,” where she fights off depression while trying to talk herself into staying engaged in life, here personified as opportunity knocking. “They ain’t gonna wanna see my silhouette rap,” she tells herself halfway through the song, before reminding herself, in the chorus, “not to fear the light that dwells deep within.” She acts as both adult and child, which brings up a loneliness, a premature maturity that is hinted at in several of these songs. Toward the end of “Reality Check,” when she raps, “Cigarettes on my mantle / Keep calling me by my first name / Loving me when I’m lonely / Pretending they really know / No name,” she paints a picture of a woman alone and without anything other than her own will with which to defend herself against an encroaching darkness. This is maybe why “when the dark is out to stay,” from “Yesterday,” strikes so hard. It sounds like a line a child would utter in a horror story.

The brilliance of Telefone is that it constantly balances this cruel darkness with a delicate beauty, particularly in an overall production that benefits from contributions by Cam O’bi, Phoelix, Saba, and Monte Booker. Musically, the beats are settled in the kind of broken, anxious R&B finessed by strains of gospel soul that has been coming out of Chicago of late, but Noname stays closer to home than many of her Chicago contemporaries by declining to offer even a cursory nod to trap. Instead, she remains solidly rooted in subtle variations on a handful of sonic themes: kaleidoscopic chords that fade in and out of existence, bass tones rumbling up from the bowels of early-2000s neo-soul, and an ample array of kalimbas and bells tinkling in the upper registers like summer evening fireflies.

Against these, her vocal delivery is plaintive. The production does not struggle to make her sound big, like someone onstage, bathing in high-powered lights and a sea of fog. Rather the closeness and minimal vocal effects bring us to her in a small, candlelit room. Her flow is deceptively natural, with her background in poetry giving her the ability to confidently explore all of the minute gradations between speaking and rapping. Sometimes she tumbles words out haphazardly, and other times she rides the beat hard, almost driving it. She is in possession of a broad array of rhythmic variations that she stealthily deploys and switches up throughout the album. Some of this is on display in “Lost,” from Chance's 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, where her stellar guest verse catapulted her into the national conversation. But there she stayed fairly on beat, like a guest respectfully observing house rules. Telefone, by contrast, finds her at her own home late into the night, beginning to let everything loose. Telefone shows her rhyming on her own terms.

The album is buoyed further by a strong roster of guests. Standout moments include Chicago singer theMIND offering beautiful backing harmonies on “Sunny Duet,” while elsewhere Raury and Joseph Chilliams deliver some of the album’s best verses. It’s worth noting that most of the visiting artists, particularly the rappers, sound even better here than they do on their own solo projects — a testament, I think, to the magnetic strength of the production’s tone. Telefone relieves them from any inkling of the need that many rappers have to flex on the track. There is not one boast, not one dis. All that remains, then, is the art and craft of writing, where Noname and her guests are free to reach deep for their best stuff.

As its name suggests, Telefone is an intimate conversation with someone we barely know, someone from whom we are distant. Frequently the best music, particularly lyrically, feels like embedded journalism, as though the artist is giving you a thorough and honest accounting of what is happening in a place that you can’t quite go to. Telefone is that. Noname doesn’t just report from Chicago. She reports from her soul as it lives in Chicago. She reports from the existential dread, fear, hope, and moments of love and beauty that come with being who she is, where she is, and when she is. We are living in a time where to be young and black is to have a functioning working relationship with your own mortality. The music that comes out of that is by nature reflective and heavy. Like Chance’s Coloring Book, Telefone is an album about the need for faith — but where Chance sends his praises up to be converted into blessings, Noname remains planted here, drawing blessings from her pain, from her fear, from her grandmother, and from the brilliant circle of artists that Chicago is currently producing. Hers is an earthbound god.

This doesn’t feel like an album that Noname recorded because she wanted to get famous. Its purity and urgency make it feel like there is simply no reality in which it could not have been recorded. It is as if she made Telefone because there was no other choice — less of a drop and more of an obligation. Soon after it was uploaded, putting an end to what was essentially a three-year wait between her first feature and her solo project, Noname tweeted the following: “Yall wanted a tape. Now yall got one. Back in the shadows I go.” Shadow to shadow. Dust to dust. The name fits.