Henry: Hold the phone. Noname is on the line. This year has seen a host of releases from Chicago artists, and I get the feeling that all of them have been trying less successfully to make an album like this. Call it jazz, call it hip-hop, call it neo-soul, Telefone drips and bounces to its own organic rhythm, and the vocal performances are across the board some of the strongest of the year. The tight 10-track list feels complete, but leaves you wanting more, waiting to be called back, staring at the telephone.
Micah: I was so excited for the release of this album. It’s been a long time since Noname (previously Noname Gypsy) showed up on one of the most tender cuts off Chance the Rapper’s seminal mixtape, Acid Rap. Since then through countless features and loose tracks she’s proven herself to be one of the most promising upcoming rappers. After three years of national exposure without a complete project under her belt, the wait is finally over, and it was worth it. Noname has the ability to grab your attention without demanding it, instead her smooth precise flows draw you into her world of swirling wordplay and refrains of ‘Everything is everything.’ I’m so excited to finally have this album to delve into, so without further ado, let’s dig in.
Produced by Cam O’bi, Phoelix & Saba
Micah: This album starts out really strong. The yawning electric piano and warm bassline makes me feel like I’m being hugged by an old friend. I love the way the vocal harmonies blend with the piano and the quietly driven drums scatter in the background. Noname is cool and calm as she delivers her first lines and throughout her first verse she builds her aggression to ultimately release into the chorus. It feels like the production and her rapping are being played live in a single take by the effortless way they build, climax, and bring down the energy of the song.
Henry: I love the meditative quality of the verses here, beginning with the driving question of the whole album: ‘who am I?’ Telefone is, I think, the most intimate album I’ve heard all year, exploring selfhood by circling around it, admitting that ‘the money don’t make me whole,’ and searching for what will, whether it’s religion, family, music, memory, or some combination of it all.
- Sunny Duet (featuring theMIND)
Produced by Cam O’bi & Monte Booker
Micah: This is my favorite beat on the album. The immaculately chopped doo-wop vocals and the stumbling drum pattern has the stench of J-Dilla all over it. Cam O’bi, who is all over this album, is really showing off the versatility of his production this year. When he works on songs with Chance and The Social Experiment (Blessings Reprise, Grown Ass Kid, The First Time) there is a lot of air in the instrumentation. Here on Noname’s tape, the production is confined, claustrophobic and cozy. Noname doesn’t slouch on the bars either, which switch from classic braggadocia, ‘I got my candy cane / My name is hella pimpin’ too / You could watch a player move,’ to straight up poetic, ‘The DJ was religion / I swear on the pope he knows me.’ Everything from the production to the writing to the performances is on point. I love this song.
Henry: This track bounces between D’angelo and Dilla, with Noname’s vocals reminiscent of early Erykah Badu, and theMIND providing some fantastic harmonies for this excellent Neo-Soul duet.
- Diddy Bop (featuring Raury & Cam O’bi)
Produced by Phoelix & Cam O’bi
Micah: This song maintains a lot of the great characteristics of the production on this album. The tight drumming and prominent vocal harmonies, but adds a lot of space with glassy keyboards and little bit of reverb. I like Raury’s feature here too. He’s always reminded of a younger version of Andre 3000 who’s at some kind of neverland summer camp, which might be why I had trouble getting into his debut album but love his feature here and on Joey Bada$$’s debut album.
Henry: I like the way the instrumentation here is stripped down while still providing a strong backing for some classic reminiscent verses from both Noname and Raury. Though it falls into the broad category of rap songs fondly remembering childhood, it’s done in a way that feels both fresh and familiar, and fits nicely into the trajectory of the album’s narrative.
- All I Need (feat. Xavier Omar)
Produced by Saba, THEMpeople & Phoelix
Henry: The groove on this track is incredible, shifting underneath shakers and snaps, while Noname gives us some of the more straight-up rap vocals on the tape, letting Xavier Omar take the chorus. Noname often refers to herself in the 3rd person, as she does here: ‘Noname off the drugs, noname quit the weed,’ which is again part of this album’s project of self-exploration, examining the idea of a persona that is fundamentally an empty thing separate from the artist, something even her name, Noname, gets at.
Micah: This song is great. Noname’s bars, the subdued instrumental and a fantastic chorus from Xavier Omar. To me it doesn’t stand out on the album, but I can’t skip it once it comes on. I will definitely be keeping this in rotation.
- Reality Check (featuring Eryn Allen Kane & Akenya)
Produced by Cam O’bi
Henry: Another track with driving live instrumentation that gets at the titular metaphor of the album, the Telephone: (when that call comes, you better say hello.) while exploring the tensions between that call, the knocking of opportunity, with the demands of supporting family (auntie fighting cancer) and the sacrifices that need to be made in order to find success.
Micah: I’m so happy to hear Rap and R&B music start to use a lot more live instrumentation. I think Kendrick’s last project showed a lot of people how successful and relevant that sound can still be. From To Pimp a Butterfly to Malibu to Chance the Rapper’s partnership with The Social Experiment there is a movement in hip hop culture to capture live performances in the vein of Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Michael Jackson. In short this albums and especially this song’s organic character adds an exciting new voice to an evolving genre and it’s really exciting to watch.
- Freedom Interlude
Produced by Saba & Phoelix
Micah: This song came out quite a while back. I loved it then and I love it now. It’s hands down the best song on the album. Noname shows off some of her strongest bars and is backed up by fantastic production. I love how Noname starts her verse with, ‘I thought I was gonna write a rap.’ While Noname has a high caliber technical rapping ability, her impact is made with her songwriting. The way she begins verses, the way she crafts a feeling for each song, and the way she composes melodies make Noname a deadly combination of skilled rapper and natural songwriter. I mess with this song.
Henry: Freedom Interlude is another track that finds meaning by circling around it, as Noname offers different ideas of what the song is about, never quite settling for one so that all of them are true in their own way.
- Casket Pretty
Produced by Saba & Phoelix
Henry: This track makes your hair stand on end, a meditative loop over shuffling snaps, conveying a sense of mournfulness and an underlying urgency to what Noname is saying. The telephone here becomes something to be feared because of what that call might bring: “I hope to god that my telly don’t ring,” she says, and as she does, we feel it too.
Micah: The shortest song on the album has some of Noname’s most gripping imagery. From ‘roses in the road and flowers at every occasion’ to seeing funerals with ‘too many babies in suits,’ Casket Pretty paints a picture of all the beautiful things that can be found in a violence-stricken city. Even though this song might be intentionally too short, it’s one of the best on this project.
- Forever (featuring Ravyn Lenae & Joseph Chillams)
Produced by Saba & Phoelix
Micah: This song fits in well on the project. It’s not the best on the tape, but that’s no reason to sleep on it. Noname’s harmonies on the chorus are a highlight and the beat is as bouncy, warm and friendly as the rest of the album.
- Bye Bye Baby
Produced by Cam O’bi & Phoelix
Micah: I love how this song works on two levels. On the surface it’s a sweet, dreamy and comforting lullaby, but the lyrics tell the story of a mother saying goodbye to her unborn child. ‘Ask me why she said goodbye / Why baby dyin’ white walls.’ Between Casket Pretty and this song, there is a lot of heartbreaking music on this album.
Henry: I think the reason this album is so good is the way in which it treats that heartbreak. Everything is approached with a reverence, a respect for the formative qualities of pain and loss, and the role of music in processing emotions. The overall aura is incredibly bittersweet and ultimately uplifting, though in a way that never loses sight of what it’s lifting us up from.
- Shadow Man (featuring Saba, Smino & Phoelix)
Produced by Cam O’bi
Henry: The closer here is one of the strongest tracks, containing the haunting refrain ‘bless the nightengale/darkness keep you well,’ invoking the classic poetic symbol of a bird known for its melancholy song, examining sadness, depression, death, and the transcendence, or at least suspension of all of it through music. The keys fade out, and we’re left with our own quiet, our ears still alert, listening for what comes next.
Micah: What a great way to end the project. This song reminds me a lot of Chance’s Blessings (Reprise) where Noname speculates about her legacy after death in a place where life is too often cut short before a person can make their full impact. Saba’s verse is getting me really excited for his solo debut and I really enjoy the group vocal that brings this album to a close. I’m really feeling this song and the way it wraps everything up. It’s very satisfying.
Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain