In the cacophony of online music; SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, the endless links and playlists, some voices hit a chord that after one listen can’t be forgotten. Chicago rapper/poet Noname (AKA Fatimah Warner) is one such voice- her gorgeous, heartfelt, tongue-twisting verse in Chance The Rapper’s ‘Lost‘ comes lurching out of the track like a pop up picture book, demanding to be paid attention to. Three years and several guest features later, finally comes her debut full length effort in the form of mixtape Telefone.
In Telefone Warner addresses a dichotomy between the warm memories of her childhood and the harshness and violence of the present. The sun-soaked nostalgia of tracks such as ‘Diddy Bop’- guest vocalist Cam O’Bi lending the chorus a feel of slick noughties R&B- make the mixtape’s harsher moments even more jarring. In ‘Casket Pretty’, her refrain of “All of my n****s is casket pretty/Aint no one safe in this happy city/I hope you make it home/I hope to God that my tele don’t ring” casting a devastating light on the human impact of police brutality, the image of “Too many babies in suits” subtle in language but devastating in meaning. Most poignant of all however is ‘Bye Bye Baby’, a heartbreaking dual narrative about abortion that is unflinching in its emotion without demonising the mother.
Her turn of phrase is endlessly inventive; a gift for vivid, abstract imagery (“I used to have a name/I looked like butterflies and Hennessy”) shines over a jittery instrumental in ‘Sunny Duet’, while lines like “She dream in technicolour/Live black and white” in ‘Reality Check’- a song as laden with guilt as gentle xylophone strokes- are elegant and striking in their simplicity.
Previously released song ‘Freedom Interlude’, as well as boasting the mixtape’s best sample in the form of a Nina Simone interview snippet, brings to light more central features of Warner’s work- a schism between spoken word hesitance and assured self belief. Her unsure admission “I think I wrote a song about redemption” portrays a musician still in transition, simultaneously coming to terms with both her personal past and work as an artist. The greatest feeling running through ‘Telefone’ is that it is a piece of great cathartic power for Warner herself- love, death, loss, discovery, addiction, and recovery are all pulled together by her tender vocals and distinctive flow.
‘Telefone’ comes to its end with ‘Shadow Man’; for the closing track it seems curious to allow the (admittedly excellent) featuring artists to dominate which is one lingering regret- a final hit of Noname’s addictive formula would have been preferable, however as the song swells to a gentle conclusion there is a sigh of relief shared by the music and the listener, a raw emotional connection that has been sparked, sustained and released.
Unique lyrical talent, thoughtfully produced and tenderly executed- Noname’s is a masterful debut.