“I hope you make it home/ I hope to God my tele’ don’t ring,” deadpans Noname on “Casket Pretty.” “Casket Pretty,” a song so inherently ugly in its juxtaposition, outlines a reality that is severe, unrelenting. And in communities of color, in less privileged communities, that reality is real. It’s the reality that struck Stephen Lawrence in south east London in April, 1993. It’s the reality that crashed into Brian Carranza in Port Richmond on Election Night, 2008. It’s the reality that points its shotgun at the first African American to move into a predominantly white neighborhood, that beats seventeen-year-old immigrants with metal pipes. It’s the rogue reality that continues to oppress, threaten, intimidate and injure. It’s the reality that’s true for all of us, because life is unforeseeable, and death, undemocratic. Because there are times you leave a party, unsure if your friends will make it home. Recall: writer Durga Chew-Bose’s 2014 Instagram post, a screenshot of safety check-ins that she and her friends routinely sent each other. This is a world that cannot afford the polite luxury of a “goodnight,” but rather one that dubs the textual confirmation of “Home! You?” dangerously necessary.
On her debut mixtape Telefone, 25-year-old Chicagoan Noname weaves through dial tones, capturing shades of imminent danger with precise exactness. Noname speaks of “too many babies in suits,” employing an imagery so cutting, it slices through the texture of the day. Too many babies. In suits.The reality of not making it home persists, even for the young. Especially for the young: “Ain’t no one safe in this happy city.” Noname confronts a reality rife with death and gun violence, a reality which hip-hop and rap have come to represent. “It’s definitely a culmination. This past summer especially has been very brutal to people of color around the world. But specifically in terms of police brutality, we’ve seen just an array of violence everywhere in the United States. I think seeing so much of that prompted the song, seeing how those things affect not only myself, but people around me who I love. It’s interesting because there’s a baby sample in the beat; it sounds so happy. I don’t know what made me write that to that beat. For whatever reason, I tend to find melancholy in instrumentals that people think are innately happy,” she claimed in a recent interview with Fader.
This dichotomy becomes all the more apparent in her ability to recognize the power of healing—from the deaths in the community, from the death of Community, from bad habits—which is one of the most salient themes on the tape. Seething, she spits, demanding uncontrollably: “Somebody heal me!” And with profound morbidity, Noname plants the seeds of gratitude and spiritual realization—she gives you time, lets the abscess fester before she encourages you (“Love is just a word, unless you show it”) to nurse yourself. To live authentically, to love hard. Because you don’t know when we could get that phone call. Noname makes you want to scream it from the roof tops and write it on the walls.
“All I Need,” which features SoundCloud Wonderboy Xavier Omar (who is fantastic, extremely underrated, and one of the finest male artists in hip-hop today), finds Noname talking about needing nothing but love. She announces that she’s “off drugs,” “quit the weed,” in the opening bridge. “You remind me to love myself for the principle / For the kid inside, til the end of time / Happy go lucky was a time.” If there’s a positive, loving song, it’s this one. “All I Need” reminds you to not to get dissuaded by the timing, the distance, the “other factors” that play into “love.” She suggests, instead, if we can be with someone we love, other priorities will take precedent. Perhaps, she muses, love will be enough. I sure as hell hope she’s right.
Optimism seeps through the blatantly self-explanatory “Sunny Duet.” With a warm background “doo doo doo,” she dazzles light upon a question we all have when we’re getting into a new relationship: “So tell me what you call me when I’m not around?” It’s the question that, often by a nagging, narcissistic insecurity, overwhelms us in the initial stages of Something New. We want to know how people are talking about us to other people.
Telefone, despite its brutal honesty, touches upon the hope that love brings. It reminds us that the petty insanity of the world, the bullshit politics—it all ceases to matter. That we need nothing but love; that love, in fact, is all we need.
Telefone, self-released 7/31/16, is available to stream via SoundCloud.