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Noname - Telefone (Album Review)

Monday, 22 August 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

‘Telefone’ might be Noname’s debut mixtape, but it’s also the first time that she has truly broken out of her shell. It’s brimming with confidence and character, something that we might not reasonably have expected to be saying as recently as a year ago.

To date, the only real barometer for measuring her potential has been feature verses on projects by her talented Chicago peers Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins. More often than not she’s felt out of place in those confines: a rambling introvert who can write well but who failed to grab the listener.

Noname’s style makes more sense when you read into her background. After making her name as a slam poet at the turn of the decade, Noname Gypsy (as she was previously known) hinted at dropping this tape as early as 2013. Since then, she’s wandered between features without betraying a clear artistic focus.

‘Telefone’ is the mixtape that Noname wanted, and needed, to make. Amid sweet, soulful instrumentation and unusual chord sequences, her flows and slam-inspired patterns make sense. She might have seemed like the awkward kid in a cypher on previous verses, but this is her world and her playful imagination is the best thing about it.

Nostalgic production is all the rage in hip hop at the moment, but few artists sound as natural as Noname does when embedded in it. On the doo-wop inspired Sunny Duet and the infectious Diddy Bop, her vivid recollections of youthful experience - whether that’s wearing Sunday sweaters and K Swiss trainers or enjoying ice creams on her front porch - feel endearing alongside radiant keys and dreamy vocal melodies.

You could easily envision songbirds in the background, à la Minnie Riperton’s Lovin’ You, if it wasn’t for some of the darker themes at play. On Bye Bye Baby, for example, it only becomes apparent that Noname is talking about having an abortion as the imagery crystallises towards the end. It’s a beautiful track that typifies her capacity to sound both tender and defiant.

Much as Chance the Rapper does on ‘Coloring Book’ track Summer Friends, she also chooses to tackle the subject of police brutality through metaphor and double entendre on Casket Pretty. Noname even goes as far as imagining her own funeral on closer Shadow Man, making the point that young black Americans are more conscious of their mortality.

And yet you could almost categorise it as easy listening. That’s partly what makes ‘Telefone’ so fascinating. It’s a sincere and inviting project that envelops the listener in a comfort blanket while alluding to stories and experiences that are difficult or even traumatising.

Noname’s outlook is refreshingly characterised by compassion and a tendency to imagine things as they could be. After years of blurred intentions, it seems that all she needed to do was to get out of her own head or, more accurately, let everybody else into it.

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