Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Noname - Telefone Review

In an age where Gucci Mane can spend six days following his stint in prison to create a comeback album, one released physically not more than a month after the fact, the long wait for Noname's debut mixtape Telefone is suspect at best. Making a name in today's fast-moving environment means dropping two mixtapes a year while releasing copious singles in between, a la Lil Yachty or Young Thug. Garnering a reputation gives one the time to craft their artistry. Without a diehard following that fan patience wanes quickly. For Noname though, the craft is more than a rite of passage but a given right for anyone who takes their work seriously. After her appearance on Chance The Rapper's breakout Acid Rap, Noname, who was formerly referred to as Noname Gypsy, announced Telefone. Three years later and two months beyond an announcement that the mixtape no longer existed, she suddenly appeared with a skull on her head and ten tracks in tow. Just one of many to rise out of the Neo-Soul Chicago scene, Noname, as a female, might be the only to rely on rapping as her prime output. Telefone, while understated and quick in many aspects, proves why she should be considered a formidable force in a city where competition is at an all-time high.

Chicago's Juke scene can very clearly be traced back to the Native Tongues and their early 90's D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Helmed by Chance and The Social Experiment, the Juke movement, and the litany of offspring, aims to provide the same counterculture the De La's and Tribe's offered more than two decades beforehand. Their answer to the violence was not to conform but to witness, accept, and direct a positive light on their city. In that respect, Noname can be seen as their Ladybug Mecca, the slick-witted, flow-savvy, lyrically-complex half of the underappreciated Digable Planets. Never spilling over to the masses like a more boisterous or charismatic Queen Latifah, Mecca, existed as a strong womanly voice in a man's game. Her gender was rarely a topic, her confidence forbade her from comparing the sexes because she knew her talents were equal. Noname rationalizes in much the same sense, acting as a drastically more subdued version of her idol Missy Elliott (as pointed out on 'Forever'), one of Hip-Hop's greatest artists bar none.
On Telefone, Noname strives to provide theoretical analysis of her surroundings through peaceful metaphor, partly due to her immensely pleasurable voice. Beginning as a spoken word poet, Noname's talents, as evident on the mixtape's opening cut 'Yesterday,' aim to make the complex look easy, all while providing lyrics open-ended enough to stir the listener's brain. 'Yesterday' succeeds in being Telefone's most well-rounded track, incorporating Juke's childlike sense of discovery both in the beat and lyrics, the former dripping with a piano melody and innocent backing vocals, the latter seeing Noname coming to terms with the violent world around her, all the while boasting a beautifully sincere hook. The production found here, and later reiterated upon in songs like 'Bye Bye Baby,' takes a lot from Kanye West's Late Registration before it turns decisively dark. Think 'Touch The Sky' and 'Heard Em Say.' Hard to imagine now seeing how far he's come, but Kanye's backpacker era planted the seed for Chicago's Juke scene, as a trove of adolescents, Noname included, admired his wholesome heart and sense of wonderment. Kanye's gone elsewhere since but Telefone remains fully engrained in his roots, a vestige of the bright spots in the city's darkest corners.

But Noname's debut is, in some respects, a bit of a red herring. Sure, it's a mixtape which brings lower expectations, but with three years of creation behind it, the small, and mostly non-linear ten tracks don't feel all that ambitious. This feeling is brought out more, unfortunately, because of one track's formidable, and almost uncomfortable, intent. That is 'Casket Pretty,' a track that rivals, at least poetically, the eye-opening revelations found on the back half of Chance's 'Pusha Man.' Many in Hip-Hop have tackled the recent police brutality, either by passion or to capture the trend. Noname, in under two minutes, weaves a tale of underlying sympathy, regret, and compassion, something only a poet at heart could achieve. Her lack of fame will prevent this, but the powerful meaning behind 'casket pretty' could have become a grim rallying cry for movements such as Black Lives Matter. For what she's able to accomplish in such a small window with that track, the others that fail to relate or hope to achieve more halt Telefone from being an engrossing experience, something, with more focus on thematic context, Noname could use to push her over the top.

Regardless of Telefone's direction, there's still hidden gems scattered throughout the thirty or so minutes. Even in moments of lull, like 'Sunny Duet' or 'Reality Check,' if you find your focus fading, a simple jolt back and you'll be sure to witness some intricate wordplay to gawk at. At the very least, Noname's vocals, her soft and subdued voice, can ease listeners down onto a path of cool, calm, and collected. And while the production itself almost never wows, how the final product utilizes minimal percussion, radiant keyboards, and hushed synths help to define Telefone's inherent guidelines. End of the day, the contributions made in all facets propels Telefone into being a solid project, and an excellent puzzle piece to add to Chicago's blossoming tree. As a succinct summation of the mixtape's lingering effects of poetic justice, the finale 'Shadow Mine' attempts to describe the future, one where each emcee, Noname, Saba, and Smino, has passed by means beyond their control, looking over their stiff bodies as a nightingale. A powerful message dominated by peaceful voices, this solemn closer, and Telefone as a whole, works to ease tension through compassion and empathy.

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