Mixtape Review: Telephone by Noname

Fatimah Warner- otherwise known as Noname - released her first major commercial project, Telefone, in 2016, and it has largely flown under the mainstream radar.

My first encounter with Noname came when I was in early secondary school, as she featured on Chance the Rapper’s 2013 Acid Rap mixtape in the song ‘Lost’. Back then, she was known as Noname Gypsy, but she has since dropped the ‘Gypsy’ half of the name out of respect for Romani people. It was difficult to be blown away by Noname just hearing her features. The 26-year old’s nonchalant style doesn’t dominate a track in the way that someone like Busta Rhymes or JME would. Yet, after hearing her on Mick Jenkin’s breakout mixtape, The Water[s], and on Kirk Knight’s mixtape Late Knight Special, it became difficult to ignore her talent.

Despite the success of the major focus of this article, the mixtape Telefone, and despite her performing at major festivals like Coachella and Wireless, Noname remains a relatively elusive artist. In fact, I will pay anyone who can find a music video that she features in. Her music is, however, worth much more than its popularity indicates.

The mixtape’s jazz rap and neo-soul production is simply incredible. While this can’t be put down to Noname specifically as she isn’t heavily involved in beat-making, the way that her style fits the production is wonderful. The production tinkers on an impeccable equilibrium, a kind that one would see on something like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City¸ where the project feels like one continuous song, yet feels rejuvenated and fresh with each new track.

Neo-soul is generally not a well-done genre in the modern day. It suffers from a plague of artists attempting it in half-arsed projects, without much real thought as to whether their vocals or style truly fits the genre. I would put albums like Built on Glass by Chet Faker and Ego Death by The Internet into this category (though this in itself does not mean these albums are of poor quality). Yet, Noname has approached the difficult genre excellently, her soft delivery and topic choice fitting the theme superbly. Telefone lands on the right side of the fence with the likes of Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom, mixing the genre with jazzy instrumentation and relaxing delivery.

The dark topics are mixed in almost randomly with the happy ones. Noname gives her take on love, nostalgia, death, friendship and determination. However, she speaks on these topics from an original and unique perspective. The stories featured in it are adapted from real telephone conversations that Fatimah has had, and the sobering reality of Noname’s emotions really comes through on the record.

Diddy Bop sees her reminisce about the times where the P. Diddy dance was popular, looking back on the positive and negative experiences in her childhood. Yesterday sees Fatimah reflect on the death of her grandmother, intertwining the somber topic with a message of hope for the future. Noname expresses regret about her abortion on one of my favourite songs on the record, Bye Bye Baby. She sheds light on the issue in a saddening fashion that I have yet to see on any other project. Noname imagines herself in heaven with her child, fantasising, playing, feeding and coddling it. Casket Pretty explores social issues like gang violence and police brutality that the Chicago-raised Noname and her friends experience on a regular basis, Noname spending the song talking about how she hopes her telephone never rings with bad news.

Yet, despite all of the cheerless topics that are featured on the mixtape, it somehow manages to leave you with a pleasant feeling mixed in with the hard-hitting reality of Noname’s difficult life. It is that challenging combination that makes the record worth your time.

I give Noname all the praise, but she is by no means a perfect artist. She is vocally quite weak, and is clearly a greater rapper than a singer. Occasionally this is a pitfall on the record, but it seems that she usually accepts her limits and allows the mixtape’s features like TheMIND and the then 16-year-old Ravyn Lenae to take the reins. Noname’s pre-rap profession as a slam poet comes through on songs like Casket Pretty in the form of some dark wordplay, but we also hear some funny quips on songs like Yesterday. However, Noname’s occasional half-hearted delivery can make the record feel like it’s dragging, and it can go beyond the easy-going delivery that is difficult not to enjoy. This does not mean Noname is bound to weak lyrical expression. Reality Check and Diddy Bop show the exciting delivery that Noname can produce.

It feels like Telefoneis just a stepping stone for the young artist. She is only early on in her musical career, and this record demonstrates that Noname is a promising musician. I would strongly recommend giving this mixtape a go no matter what genre of music you generally listen to. Even the interlude on this mixtape is a good listen. The record was one of the best of 2016, and I can only hope to hear to more music like this from Noname in the future. After listening to Telefone, I would suggest giving her NPR Tiny Deskconcert a listen if you enjoyed the recorded project, as it gives a live spin on the already refined mixtape.

If it weren’t for the occasionally dull rap-style that Noname delivers, I would have given the record a higher rating, but I leave Telefone with the strong rating of an 8.5/10.