Noname is a 25-year-old rapper from Chicago, but beyond these descriptors she cannot be categorized.
“I try to exist without binding myself to labels,” she told Fader in an interview. “For me, not having a name expands my creativity. I’m able to do anything.” And true to her word, Noname refuses to define herself based on pre-existing labels, forging her own path as an independent artist with an unconventional musical style. In her debut album, Telefone, Noname combines precise rhymes with melodic, airy instrumentals and proves that she is an entity in the rap genre like no other.
Raised in the South Side of Chicago, Noname (born Fatimah Warner) first ventured into music and spoken-word poetry when she was in high school. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she describes her teenage self as “awkward and not really able to find a niche for what I wanted to do.” Looking for an outlet for self-expression, Noname stumbled onto Def Jam Poetry videos online and was instantly hooked. She soon joined Young Chicago Authors and YOUmedia, creative-arts programs that facilitate writing workshops and open-mic opportunities for Chicago’s youth.
Exploring the crossover between live poetry and hip-hop, Noname cultivated her own rapping style and connected with other teens attending local open mic events. One of these friends — Chance the Rapper — would eventually feature Noname on a song from his 2013 Acid Rap mixtape. On the track, “Lost,” Noname showcases her bright, calming flow while spitting masochistic lines like “Fuck me into open caskets / I wanna die like this.”
At the time, this was Noname’s only musical release, and as listeners clamored to learn more about this talented yet mysterious feature on Chance’s mixtape, she faced significant pressure from producers to assemble an album quickly. But, as she told Vulture, “For the longest [time], it seemed like people liked anything that Chance co-signed. I didn’t want to put out something just because.”
Putting external pressures aside, Noname spent the next three years developing an album on her own terms. Rather than working with unfamiliar music industry figures, Noname chose old friends Cam O’bi, Saba, and Phoelix as her album producers. And instead of renting a recording studio, Noname booked an Airbnb in Los Angeles and used it as a space to write, record, and brainstorm with friends. Finally, in July 2016, Telefone was released.
With Telefone, Noname brings the same sunniness she demonstrated on “Lost,” maintaining a signature effervescence that is always genuine and never camp. Woven into her heartfelt lyrics are stories of brutally honest introspection and diatribes against racism. In the fan-favorite “Casket Pretty,” Noname viciously mocks explanations for police brutality against Blacks, rapping, “You ain’t mean no harm / Collecting your check mate / I know you in love with the power.” A last-minute addition to the record, “Casket Pretty” is packed with vivid figurative language and imagery that make it as much a literary feat as an innovative rap record. Other songs combine Noname’s abstractly poetic language with explicit references to her personal life, such as “Yesterday,” a track that grieves the death of her grandmother, and youth mentor Brother Mike.
Above everything else, it was a priority for Noname that Telefone represent her personality and opinions authentically. “I’m very into the idea of being my truest self within my art,” she said to Clash. “I wanted people to really feel like they were really listening, like sitting in a room with Fatimah.” Noname elaborated on her vision for Telefone in a conversation with Fader, saying, “When I initially created it, I wanted it to feel like a conversation with someone who you have a crush on for the first time. Your first time talking on the phone with someone you really like.”
But as she delved deeper into creating the album, the title Telefone evolved to have a broader meaning for the artist: “Now, it’s kind of just like, my life is my phone. All of the joy that my friends and family bring me: A phone call, a text message, a meme, laughter, all of that shit exists within my phone.” A stream of her ideas, doubts and emotions, Telefone gives diary-like insight into Noname that is uncompromisingly honest, just like her.
Noname plays Friday at 4:30 p.m. on the Panhandle Stage.
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