Nitish Pahwa owns several sets of Tarot cards.
The cover of Telefone, the debut album from Chicago rapper Noname, presents an sepulchral image: a younger version of the artist standing behind a lanky flower, but seeming far more occupied by the skull weighing atop her head. Pretty sights distract her, but death, or its warning, continues to loom on her mind.
Like many youth of the Chicago South side, she’s already witnessed her fair share of funerals, injustices, and the ominous sense that there will be more to come. This haunting sense pervades all of Telefone, a poignant album which offers a delicate insight on maturation in the face of tragedy.
Consider “Casket Pretty,” which opens with the sound of baby giggles and a series of breezy, jazzy chords. A blissful atmosphere ensues for all of sixteen seconds before Noname shatters the illusion with her deadpan entrance: “All of my n***as is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home / I hope to God my tele’ don’t ring…” There is no Paradise here. Her voice brings the worried minds of her city to tape: friends and families who pray everyday for the well-being of their loved ones.
It has a disquieting effect, reflective of an inescapable reality. The skull is ever-present as the effects of police brutality, systemic poverty, and gang violence lay senseless waste to the lives of her friends. It gets to a devastating point—“Funeral home lookin’ like a home that I used to live in,” recounts fellow Chicagoan Saba on a pensive guest verse. Personal turmoil is reflected too: “Bye Bye Baby” relates the scene of an abortion, characterizing both the mother and the soon to be rested fetus. That the fetus understands what is about to happen (“Play date up to heaven soon / soon I will see the king”), makes it no less heartbreaking.
This all seems morbid, but Telefone is equally thoughtful and self-reflective. Noname ruminates on her childhood in the city, her former suitors, her earthly needs, her faith, and her career, which she admits has been a long, reluctant time in the making (“Opportunity knocking, a n***a was out for coffee”). Telefone achieves this balance between hope and realism with the help of its colorful production. A sonic bed of choirs, organs, xylophones, and plinking drums provides the dreamlike background, immersing listeners into Noname’s mind and world: wistful, confident, brooding, but never morose.
As we sit and listen, Noname raps her thoughts with a fluid motion, dancing between flows and slight melodies. As blunt as she often sounds, her voice touches moments of delicacy and warmth. Hers is the tired voice of one who was forced to grow up all too quickly, and has many stories to tell.
Noname recognizes the ubiquitous threat around her, but refuses to succumb to the fear. The hook in “Forever” is a cold sneer in the face of those who oppress Noname, her loved ones, and her friends (“They ain’t tryna’ see us shine, shine / Bullet on our time, time / But fuck it, we’ll live forever). In “Freedom (Interlude),” she breathlessly spills out thoughts on her tumultuous life, but ends it all with a simple chant: “Dance with me, dance with me…I know I’m free, dance with me.” In times of despair, she finds hope in life’s brightest joys: memories, love, faith, and music.