Noname's long-awaited debut mixtape finally and suddenly arrived at the very end of July. After hinting at its impending release for years after garnering attention for her appearances on Chance the Rapper's mixtapes, she finally has a body of work that we can examine.
Telefone is the exact project I would have pictured Noname to release, and that is a very good thing. As we've seen in her smattering of features and singles prior to this project, Noname's relaxed tone and conversational flow feature prominently on this project. The production also comes as no surprise, with low-key, jazzy beats forming the backdrop for all of the tracks on Telefone. One unexpected aspect of the mixtape is the lack of a Chance the Rapper feature on any of the tracks. It feels odd, given her obvious working relationship with him and the visibility that such a feature would give to her project. I think the omission of such a feature says something about Noname's personality which I'll touch upon later in this review.
Where to start with this mixtape? I think I'll concentrate first on the most noteworthy aspect of Noname's music - her lyrical prowess. Having transitioned into hip-hop from attending local Chicago poetry slam events, the influence that her poetry roots have on her lyrical style is a subtle undercurrent throughout this tape. It's hard to place the exact ways that this influence manifests itself in her work, but I think a big part of it stems from the muted tone in her delivery. Her voice rarely strays far from the baseline tone that she begins the song with, a stylistic choice that isn't dull, but I will come back to. In addition, she never dramatically increases the intensity of her delivery, either to sing, yell or otherwise inflect in a way that conveys force. The resulting effect is this conversational feel, cultivating a laid back atmosphere that feels unique from hip-hop and also manifests itself in the lyrical content of the tracks.
Again observing her work through the lens of a background in poetry writing, Noname's lyrical affectations reflect her background upon inspection. She plays a lot with how flow in rap is typically handled, dropping on a dime to make certain lines shine through in a way that reminds me very much of slam poetry. She does this often on her less traditionally structured songs, which evoke the feel of "not-rap" by their nature, but this is reinforced by what she does in the writing. For example, on Freedom Interlude, she enters a flow that rides pretty smoothly with these lines: "The walls is caving/The laws is changing/Bill Cosby ain't the god we made him/They all forgave him". She could keep the flow going at this point, but she chooses to pause and deliver the next line: "I think I wrote a song about confusion and perception". This sudden drop in the flow of the song does a couple of things - It highlights her opinion on the Bill Cosby rape accusations, bringing attention to that line. On top of that, it also draws attention to the fact that she is switching narrative styles and is now engaging in meta-commentary on the song itself. She quickly enters back into a regular flow with: "Messages in bottles/Disillusion on the guest list/You said plus one" and pauses once again with: "So where your plus one at?" Then she goes back into a regular flow again. Other rappers also tend to break up flow at key moments to highlight lines in their songs as well, but Noname goes a step further here and also breaks her rhyme scheme. The whole middle passage beginning with "Messages" and ending with "plus one at?" completely breaks from the rhyme scheme of the song, containing no rhymes at all. Again, this is another tool used to draw attention to these lines, making them stand out even more. Breaking away from any sort of rhyming pattern is a common feature of slam poetry, but one not often seen within hip-hop. Noname is drawing from her past writing experience here. In the interest of keeping this review on the short side, this is just one example, but you can see that Noname employs techniques like this all over the album.
While I've been heaping praise upon Noname's unique delivery and next-level lyricism, I have to address a few shortcomings on this album. My biggest concern is how similar all of the songs are, at least in tone and production. To be fair, this could interpreted as two sides of the same coin - Noname could be using this album to crystallize this particular sound as her own, or she could be afraid to make music outside of her comfort zone. This is mostly just speculation, but there's reason to believe that the latter explanation holds more truth. At her core, I believe that Noname is a quiet person with immense talent that has been thrust into the spotlight almost against her will. She seems to harbor self-doubt over her abilities and an unwillingness to seize the occasion and jump headfirst into stardom. The song on this mixtape, "Reality Check", is all about this inner conflict. She says, "The Grammy's is way too lofty/And I could stay here forever", signifying her reluctance to break out of her shell and realize her potential. However, the song later goes on to reveal a desire to seize the opportunity in an empowering, uplifting chorus. I'm not entirely convinced by the song's refrain; it feels like an inner monologue, as if she's psyching herself up.
Going back to Chance - it has to be noted that he's lacking a feature on this project. She has also collaborated with Mick Jenkins, another bigger name that would instantly give this mixtape a tremendous boost in attention. Is she really "seizing the opportunity" if she's not making the most of her connections within the music industry, especially when she has other features on this tape? Concerning how closely all of the songs on the tape resemble each other: This is mirrored and conflated by how little her voice varies in tone and energy. My theory is that Noname is a very bright, introspective artist, perhaps so much so that it works to her detriment. It seems like she gets inside her own head too much and that painful self-awareness is both her greatest strength and greatest weakness. While she might be able to dive deeply inside her psyche and produce engrossing, meditative lyrics, the same mentality halts her from breaking out of her shell and burning as brightly a star as she could be.
I think the greatest artists are those that seek to transcend being human and aim for another level of being that can only be encapsulated by their performance and music combined. Noname shows glimpses of this on her mixtape, with brilliantly constructed song lyrics and catchy, melodic production. The project works on multiple levels; it can be appreciated superficially on a summer evening's drive, or it can be studied and reflected upon due to the incredible depth of the writing. Noname clearly struggles with her pursuit of a craft that may require tendencies outside of her natural personality, but she's surrounded herself with strong personalities and winning mentors up until this point in her career. Ultimately, like the songs on Telefone, there is a current of overwhelming optimism around Noname - I think we've yet to see the best from her and I've no doubt that she'll continue to improve as an artist.
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