The sound of people chatting and the faint whirr of fans can be heard in the background when Noname calls. When she explains where she is—a nail salon—she laughs about it, as if shrugging with a smile. She holds the phone away from her mouth for a second to ask for gold nailpolish, and when she brings it back, she explains she wanted to opt for a change of pace. I can’t help but think it matches her trajectory. The 25-year-old Chicago rapper is, putting it gently, recluse, avoiding the spotlight even though it’s been chasing her feverishly ever since the release of her debut full-length, Telefone, this past July. If there’s one color to honor her growth, it’s gold, and it’s certainly the color of her future in this field.
Born Fatimah Warner, the poet, rapper, and musician is well on her way to fame. Chances are you’ve heard her voice several times already. After numerous collaborations with Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, and Saba, she’s gone on to open for Lauryn Hill and appeared as a surprise guest on Saturday Night Live. To most, Noname is a hip-hop artist who works alongside lovable rappers, but, until recently, didn’t have a wealth of her own work to dive into — and now, that means she’s hesitant about people’s reactions to her music. It’s hard to tell if fans like her songs because of the affiliations, but give Telefone a listen and it’s clear, barely a single song in, that she’s earned all the buzz herself.
“It’s a lot of attention that I’m not used to, but I’m moreso grateful than anything else,” she says over the phone. “People truly being fans of Telefone made me realize they’re more for me and my art than just my affiliations to more famous rappers. That gave me confidence. I try to find happiness when I’m reflecting on all of the art I’ve made with people that I love — and people that I admire. I can’t doubt myself too much when some of the most arguably influential musicians are fans of me as well. I guess I’m doing something right.”
That she is. Telefone is ripe with raw beauty. The first chords of opener “Yesterday” alone provide warm, honest inner peace, where descending piano chords hit like a hotel lobby melody yearning for the Broadway stage while Noname raps smoothly over soft bass and thudding percussion. Calling the production a masterpiece is an understatement. It’s the type of work people pay major bucks to achieve, and Noname worked closely with friends in Chicago to churn this out not just from hard work, but by following what felt natural. It’s a work of love in every definition of the word: romantic, familial, platonic, devastating, grateful, and beyond. The wait for her to drop it felt like forever—it took three years between her first major collaboration and the humble announcement of her full-length’s arrival last July—but it immediately proves it was worth the wait.
“Eventually, I had to tell myself this was either going to happen now or never, that I couldn’t keep stalling, or even be fearful,” she says. “There wasn’t a song on the project that I wasn’t proud of. I felt I could stand by them, so I figured I should put it out while I still had that feeling because, me being the crazy-ass artist I am, who knows if I’d still feel that way in two weeks.”
Noname justifies getting caught up in fear. It’s no secret the world’s unkind to independent musicians, nevertheless rising rappers, nevertheless women, nevertheless people of color, and, on top of it all, releasing it online. “Putting out music on the internet means you open yourself up to a world of critique,” she says. “Sometimes it’s cool. Sometimes it can be really overwhelming, for me personally at least. That was one of my main fears: what are these people going to think? They waited so long — was the wait worth it? Will I live up to their expectations of me as the girl on that one Chance song? Eventually, I let that go, because the friends who I have that are incredible musicians? They believe in me and that’s almost all that matters, next to me believing in myself.”
The pressure she put upon herself is both to be expected and not: Noname is a musician who strives to outdo not others, but herself. It’s about perfecting a sound while still letting it sound wholly natural. That’s why Telefone, despite all of its uplifting chord progressions and keys, carries such a downtrodden, nostalgic tone. “My ear tends to find melancholy in sunnier-sounding production. It’s this bittersweet, happy-sad, mix-up thing that I can’t explain, but it really gets me,” she says. “It’s not intentional. I just love that production because I’m like that myself as a person: I’m very happy, but there’s an underlying sadness with me.”
In working alongside co-executive producers Saba, Cam O’bi, and Phoelix, each of their ears gravitated towards similar sounds. Noname then spilled words that came natural for a poet of her ilk, pairing up poems with the mood the melodies dictated — or, in the case of “Freedom Interlude,” the contradiction of that. “The hardest thing was trying to create a verse that’s fun and light and bouncy. I struggled writing the second verse to ‘Sunny Duet’; the first was easy, but the second was tough in terms of style,” she says. “But emotionally, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ or ‘Freedom Interlude’ were the hardest to get out because of emotions. Something about the first poured out of me, like I had been waiting to write it; I wrote that relatively quickly and I enjoyed writing it. But ‘Freedom Interlude,’ the honesty of that? And releasing it into the world? That was difficult.”
All of those words—reflections on abortions, a grandmother’s death, and the evolution of what it means to be free—tumble from Noname’s teeth like she’s resting her face in the palm of her hand at the lunch table, telling you about her day. There’s no heat behind her words. She doesn’t need it. The words speak for themselves. And yet that calm delivery is cited by several as a demotion, as if her soft enunciation slights the fact that she can rap and she is rapping, not just testing out slam poetry. The two of us try to come up with other artists who rap softly, and we struggle to name names. Noname says Andre 3000 plays with that delivery. I say Astronautalis does, though sometimes he yells. She names Drake, but then takes it back, citing his melodies as soft but not necessarily his vocal delivery. We laugh, suddenly aware of how secluded she is in this circle of the rap venndiagram.
“It bothers me, but I’ve come to terms with it. I think it takes me out of the conversation of rap and puts me in this world where I’m ‘just’ a poet. On a lot of those songs, I think I’m rapping really good. But I get it. The only thing I think that people don’t necessarily understand about the project is that how I rap in terms of sonically where my voice is sitting in the mix? All of that was intentional. If I wanted to rap aggressively, I could, and I think because I don’t, people interpret that as meaning I can’t rap. Rap can be soft, you know? It can be tender. Most of the times it’s not. Most times it’s hyper-masculine and hyper-aggressive. When they’re presented with something that’s gentle, I think it’s easy to think, ‘This isn’t rap. She’s not really rapping.’ which is cool. We have to start somewhere,” she says. “The next tape will sound different. I’ll tap into something heavier, and now I’m in this mindset of like, ‘Oh, you guys think I can’t rap? I’m going to come back with something that’s only rap so you can’t argue with me. And then I’m going to come back with super soft rap. Because I can.’”
Hearing her wax confidence about her future is reassuring. Noname’s been polishing off her talent for years now and, no doubt, there’s stacks of journals filled with lyrics that she’s sitting on. “I don’t know why I don’t pick the phrases in life that are a little lighter… maybe because they’re usually not as well written?” she says about the notes she jots down. “I have a lot written down from Moonlight; I love the way that was written. I’m really into language that is very beautiful and complex, but can be universally understood. Moonlight does a good job with those moments within its writing.”
It’s apparent in her influences, too. Spike Lee circa 1994 or Toni Morrison can guest-write a verse for her next release if they want — and, to be honest, if she asked them, part of me thinks they’d say yes. “She’s one of my favorite writers ever,” Noname says of Morrison. “Imagine her spitting one of her verses? Nobel Peace Prize winner on my song? That’d be crazy.” But she also thinks of those within her inner circle, like Chicago poet Reggie Eldridge and those who she’s already brought into her work on Telefone like theMIND and Jamila Woods. She wants to represent her hometown of Chicago as much as she wants to rep diverse voices within rap at large. That duplexity of the music on Telefone and the voices it offers is, in her opinion, what makes it a Chicago album. It represents the city’s deep ties to coded coexisting.
“Chicago is a city that’s very much at all times two things,” she explains. “It’s politically corrupt, but it’s artistically a renaissance hub for incredible world-changing artists. It’s extremely accessible in terms of being able to hop on a train or bus and go around the city, but it’s also so segregated. The duality of Chicago finds itself in my music in that there’s all these beautiful, really powerful moments on the record—even outside of what I brought to the record in terms of production or what artists were featured—an undeniable, lush beauty, but there’s also this very, very dark—I wouldn’t even call it an undertone because it’s so present—cloud hovering over it at all times. Yet it still maintains that sunniness. I don’t know; that’s just so Chicago.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to love Chicago,” she continues. “I dislike the violence. I dislike the deaths. I dislike the segregation. I dislike how the city is politically driven. But I do like, outside of my home where everything I know is very mapped out, the culture of the city. There’s such a rich, musical culture. It’s, in a lot of ways, very recently driven by political art. I love that. I haven’t been to another city that’s as forward moving, artistically as Chicago, or at least in the way that Chicago is. Maybe elsewhere it doesn’t exist in the same vein. There’s something about this community of artists who truly, truly love one another and support one another. I haven’t felt that anywhere else. All the resources in Chicago are one of the things that make it so powerful.”
On the other end of the phone, Noname waits for her nails to dry. She can relax. Her upcoming Boston show, like the rest of the Telefone tour, already sold out. Of course. When she gets here, the Middle East Downstairs will be packed to the brim before she takes the stage, even considering it’s an early show, because the venue has already been moved due to high ticket demands. Come Friday night, when she unwraps her fingers from the microphone, that gold nailpolish catching the light one last time, and she exist the stage, Noname will be on everyone’s minds. She never left them to begin with. She’s too modest to admit it, but her music has been running through the veins of her fans ever since it dropped in July, and now, hearing it live for the first time, will make them feel alive with a complexity they can’t articulate. Instead, they can point to her songs and let them speak on their behalf. Her moniker may suggest she’s a nobody, but her music paints the life of someone you can’t forget, and for everyone who’s heard Telefone, Noname is etched in their brains for the long haul.
NONAME, RAVYN LENAE. FRI 3.3. MIDDLE EAST DOWNSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 6:30PM/ALL AGES/$15. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM