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The Dark Truth And Honest Beauty Of Noname's Telefone

Read A Retrospective Essay About Our First VMP Rap & Hip-Hop Selection

On August 23, 2017

I used to have a name that look like butterflies and Hennessy /

I’d trade it in for happiness, but joyful don’t remember me.

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Every year, contentment, for so many, becomes more of a scarcity, a tradeoff. So you make half-empty attempts to find it. As you give up innocence— like a song you used to love—you ache for what it used to be, but strained through our own experiences, our own memories, we hear pain. You want those sounds to take care of you, to set you free— and oh boy, they’re trying their best—but they’re tainted with flickers of unabashed reality. This is the ebb and flow inside of each track on Telefone. The way a good parent knows the value of warm, difficult honesty instead of sugar-coating, Noname knows how to use dark truths as an instrument for germination.

Chronicling the world around her on the Southside of Chicago into a string of thoughts translated via arresting bars, 25-year-old Fatimah Nyeema Warner weaves bleeding under healing, warmth over ice, fear under embrace. Released just over a year ago and forever maintaining its relevance, Telefone takes pieces of our world that should be so catastrophically at odds with each other, greases them with honesty and slides them snugly together to form an image of her reality.

“It’s a weird thing to do,” she told Clash magazine. “But I just find melancholy in music that makes me happy because I listen to it so much.”

Upon first listen, Telefone sounds like unadulterated sunny warmth: the backbone of muted synth lullabies, the coat of modern doo-wop harmonies, the softly textured drums, the human snaps, the recordings of baby coos and giggles. Upon first listen, everything’s a prayer: her grandma’s smile, Henny in cup, ice cream on her porch, the light inside herself, the freedom of saying “fuck it.” Its warmth can be attributed to beyond-skilled writing and recording by Noname and collaborators Saba, Cam O’bi and Phoelix. Telefone was recorded in two Los Angeles Airbnbs-turned-studios over a single summer month. But its sunniness also serves a deliberate function: guiding the listener into tending to the darkness.

Telefone says to look at all this beauty, look at the joy, look at this rhythm, look at the humanity. Now look what they’ve done to it.

Ain’t no one safe in the happy city /

I hope you make it home /

I hope to god that my telly don’t ring/Too many babies in suits

Once you fall into its embrace, you hear its heartbeat—its radical, carefree, young blackness—strained through death, through poverty, through violence. But instead of dampening the joy, it elevates its importance, and prays for its protection. Its light is a vehicle to force you to confront the dark; it’s a lens reframe it.

“Casket Pretty” is abundant with joyful, distant infant sounds in the beat, as it materializes a narrative of police violence. It’s heart-breaking. She drops real, unnecessary death on top of innocence as “badges and pistols rejoice in the night” in the face of fallen black bodies. The joy, again, balanced against darkness as an illustrator, hopefully a motivator.

I hope that darkness keep you well

In “Yesterday,” she grapples with the passing of loved ones with memories, how she “check[s her] Twitter page for something Holier than black death". Even the warm words of her departed grandma serve as a larger warning, a signal of oppressive state forces: "Don't grow up too soon / Don't blow the candles out / Don't let them cops get you." But she returns to the vivid memories of their smiles for solace.

Her ability to reframe our contextual thinking of darkness shines on “Bye Bye Baby”—the pinnacle of audible warmth and joy, and also about abortion. Noname told Fader, “I feel like whenever I hear people talking about abortion, they typically take the love out of it, as if it can never be a loving act — as if it’s only done out of hate or desperation.” Telefone teaches us that—instead of being a scarcity, a tradeoff—darkness and love can exist alongside each other, and they often do.

Noname Live at SXSW. Amileah Sutliff

Nobody understands my songs /

Aloe vera sentences to heal the scars

Although frequently referred to as a poet, on Telefone Noname is clearly first and foremost a rapper. She’s made this very clear. Perhaps the tendency to assign her a “poet” label lies in her frequent exchange for rap’s braggadocious wordplay for subtle play within the words themselves. The intricate exchange of sounds in every single line alone make this album rewarding after an infinite number of listens. Her roots are in poetry and the poetic devices are her weapon, but—as she told Vulture—she’s “rapping [her] ass off” and her unmatched ability to do so in a way no one’s ever really mastered gives her insurmountable power as a rapper. She seems immune to—even repellant of—fakeness in any sense. Her tracks are genuine understanding upon mind-blowing (but somehow, still humble) finesse, coincidentally making her record among the most quietly powerful to come out in the last five years.

Scars are a reminder of pain, as much as a reminder of recovery. Noname made a healing embrace for those who need to be lifted out of the continuing scars of oppression in their daily lives, and an urgent alarm at the systematic loss of beautiful human lives for those with the privilege to ignore it. So very little is capable of retaining both the dark truth of the world and honest beauty it’s capable of creating, but Telefone will give it to you time and time again, without fail.

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Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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