Episode 40: Telefone (Noname, 2016)
By late September of this year, the number of homicides in the city of Chicago was already climbing beyond 500, which, as the New York Times reported, is “more than in Los Angeles and New York combined.” August alone saw the killing of 90 people there, making it the deadliest month the city has seen in about twenty years. Distrust of the police has only escalated as news of unarmed black life after unarmed black life being shot dead streams in.
Growing up, Chicagoan poet-turned-rapper Noname (née Fatimah Warner) turned to poetry to cope with the world around her. In 2010, as a junior in high school, she entered the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slam. Founded by Kevin Coval, a powerful poet himself who has appeared several times on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, the competition is intended as an outlet for diverse teenage poets in the Chicago area to express themselves, break stereotypes, speak truth, and, importantly, to witness those voices they might not otherwise get to hear up close and unfiltered. To come together, to cope, to thrive.
Noname’s poem, “When Dreams Come True,” is a tale of a choked-off, misplaced American Dream—about a fallen woman who is prostituting herself to support her crack addiction. The high is the dream, or the dream substitute, or the path to the substitute dream. A piece of the poem: “I remember when her beauty was more captivating than the sunrise when it sets in the moonlight. She was more beautiful than the sunrise when it sets in the moonlight, but the moon’s light don’t shine on her anymore. For it doesn’t want to reveal the blisters and burns on her lips where the crack pipe sits.”
Noname placed third.
Over the ensuing years, she would shift from poetry to rap—going on to provide a smattering of laudable guest verses here and there, most notably for fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper on his 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap—and further develop her cool flow, her lyricism, her biting insight, the melody of her voice. And on her long-awaited and recently released debut mixtape, Telefone—this week’s Album of the Week—we hear her in full force.
For an album that was so long in the making—three years between announcement and release—Telefone is surprisingly open and airy. The production is smooth as hell but somehow it retains a homemade quality—handclaps and finger-snaps right up in your ear. Striking, off the bat, is that these tracks don’t wait for choruses to give you hooks—though those choruses hook you plenty—there are sharp and barbed melodies throughout, even within Noname’s verses. Harmonically speaking, the ten songs of Telefone lean for the most part on sturdy and solid staples of the jazz and gospel language, orchestrated thoughtfully and slickly. This reliance on “feel-good” harmonic movement that makes sense (this follows that), peppered occasionally to great effect with an unexpected twist, puts listeners at ease, heads deeply nodding and wide opening ears to what Noname has to say. She needn’t shout. In fact, a marker of Noname’s style is her laid-backness. Don’t, however, mistake it for weakness or weariness: think Billie Holiday. She says of the album that she hoped to capture the feeling of being on the phone with someone for the first time—“all its little intricate idiosyncrasies.” That intimacy and lightness stands out.
But the telephone isn’t just the facilitator of innocent awkwardness and laughter, as Noname details in the seventh track, “Casket Pretty”—its ring can be a portent of death. The sampled giggles and coos of a baby belie the tale of widespread death of young men and women in the streets her “happy city,” Chicago. “I’m afraid of the dark / Blue and the white / Badges and pistols rejoice in the night,” she says, indicting the police for an all-too-common crime. “I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring.” We’re given a moment to let the idea sink in when she says, “Too many babies in suits.” It echoes.
In the cover artwork, a stunning painting by Nikko Washington, we see death in the form of a small skull looming above a young girl—unseen by her but ever felt—and blooming flowers crowding her right side. She stares forward with wide eyes unblinking but very much alive. I got lost in those eyes today and in so doing, I eventually realized that she is not looking straight ahead, back into the viewer’s eyes, but just above, presumably checking out the skulls atop the heads of others.
And yet somehow, despite the darkness, a hope shines through Telefone. A month before the tape dropped, Noname tweeted, “Everything is Everything (my new religion).” The phrase itself—everything is everything—makes an appearance on three difference tracks. The reference, I have to imagine, is not to Donny Hathaway’s debut album of the same name from 1970, but rather to the song of the same name on Lauryn Hill’s debut album from 1989. Hill’s song is an embodiment of hope in darkness, or at very least the idea that in time, eventually, change comes—winter becomes spring.
In the summer of 2007 on the blog for the Poetry Foundation, called Harriet, another poet from Chicago, Patricia Smith, wrote a post about what Robert Frost might be able to teach “performance poets.” What she was railing against in “about 75% of the poets I’ve heard lately, well-intentioned bellowers who are masters of pretty pictures strung together or rants laced with vitriol,” is, well, enthusiasm. A certain kind of enthusiasm, which Frost, quoted from his 1930 talk, “Education by Poetry,” describes as “sunset raving. You look westward toward the sunset, or if you get up early enough, eastward toward the sunrise, and you rave. It is ohs and ahs with you and no more.”
Noname is in the clear here.
Smith goes on, in solidarity with Frost, “The idea is paramount; the idea should be the result of the poet’s eye and his intellect. The idea will guide you toward softer ways to say hard things; it will teach you the benefits of quiet, of knowing when a scream is warranted. Enthusiasm, when filtered through this solid beginning, is no longer of the ‘sunset raving’ variety. It’s not ohs and ahs at the mere appearance of the sizzling gold, the persistent heat. It’s whispering quiet thanks that the sun has chosen to rise at all, again.”
In Noname’s debut, we get just such lush talk about the hardest of things.
Everything is everything.
Are you listening?
Be the receiver and let the drop of Telefone lift you up.
I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.