‘Telefone’ delight: Chicago rapper Noname brings hometown pride to Portland
This article was written by Emerald contributor Hannah Steinkopf-Frank.
“Y’all know my name,” said Chicago rapper Noname during her Feb. 16 show at the Doug Fir Lounge after she had the audience repeat her name in a growing chant.
Of course, the irony is that despite having a moniker shrouded in anonymity, Noname (aka Fatimah Warner) has been thrust into the limelight, first with her high-profile collaborations with fellow Chicago rappers Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins and the release of last year’s acclaimed “Telefone.” On the 10-song mixtape, Noname finds beauty in nostalgia for her childhood, but does not shy from exploring darker themes: growing up poor (“When the lights was off we had to stay with cousins”) and the high murder rate of Black men and women in Chicago.
The result is a work both personal enough to have come out of Noname’s background as a slam poet as well as ambitious and experimental in its infectiously funky production. The album is layered with unexpected melodies and soulful harmonies that propel it forward.
Opener Ravyn Lenae, a soulful, 18-year-old singer also from Chicago’s South Side, set the tone for the show, saying that she often writes about the joy and love found in spring and summer. Before singing the cool, low-key “May,” she said she pictures May as being a woman, be it a mother, grandma or sister. While Lenae joked that she can’t really dance, she set a high bar for the headliner despite her young age.
While it’s not hard to see Noname’s prowess on stage with others — see her performance with Chance the Rapper on SNL — it is difficult to imagine how her vulnerable, orchestrated songs could translate live (it took her three years to make the album.). The answer is a 7-piece band, which jammed before Noname jumped into her set with “All I Need,” an anthem of sorts that begins with, “Noname off the drugs. Noname quit the weed. Telefone delight. Love is all I need.”
Like many of her fellow Chicago rappers, including Chance and Jenkins, Noname regularly turns to religion, though unlike her peers, she presents a more nuanced understanding of spirituality. On “Sunny Duet,” the song she performed following “All I Need,” she remembered a lost love, rapping, “Of the ollie ollie, feeling holy. The DJ was religion. I swear on the Pope he know me.“ Clearly, Noname finds solace in the music itself.
Although, the journey to self-acceptance isn’t a straightforward path, something clear on her verse from the 2013 Chance track “Lost,” which received one of the biggest audience reactions when she played it. The crowd might have most connected with her while singing along to the song’s “Let’s get lost” refrain. But Noname most revealed herself when she lamented, “I wanna stop seeing my psychiatrist. She said ‘pill pop, baby girl cause I promise you, you tweaked. The empty bottled loneliness, this happiness you seek.’ “
This personal journey is almost always set in the backdrop of Noname’s Chicago, a city that is as much a character in her songs as the anonymous love interests and family members. At times, her vision of Chicago is idealized, but always tinged with darker tones. On the poppy “Diddy Bop,” she remembered “Ice cream on my front porch in my new FUBU and my A1’s too. Watching my happy block my whole neighborhood hit the diddy bop.” It’s on a dreamy song like this, which features Raury & Cam O’bi, that Noname’s background singers brought the music to life.
At other times, her relationship to her hometown is more turbulent. On the biting “Casket Pretty,” she almost whispers. “All of my niggas is casket pretty. Ain’t no one safe in this happy city.” The song is only a minute and a half long and was possibly even shorter live. More than on any other track, Noname’s rapping skills were center stage. If you blinked, like me, you probably almost missed her jab at President Trump, who earlier that day said that there are two Chicagos: one “that’s incredible, luxurious and all and safe,” and another “that’s worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East.” She, obviously, has a different perspective.
If there’s a critique of Noname, which is probably not a valid one, it’s that she doesn’t ease her audience into her music. Artists like Chance have gained success with music that is often more digestible. Possibly because of her background as a slam poet, Noname does not seem to care as much if her audience is able “get” the pain, love, despair and hope that she raps about.
Consequently, it was a shock when she announced she only had one song left after having played for less than an hour. It felt like she had only started opening her world when she ended with the rousing “Forever.” After rapping about death, there was a powerful sense of resilience when, with opener Ravyn Lenae, Noname sang “They ain’t trying to see me shine, shine. Bullet on my time, time. But fuck it, I’ll live forever.”
This uplifting finish, though, was a false finale. After saying, “Y’all fun, Portland,” Noname provided the eager audience with one last song, the soulful “Shadow Man.” Although she had just been singing about never dying, Noname now imagined her own funeral. Like much of her music, it has humor. (“When I die there’s 27 rappers at my funeral. Moses wrote my name in gold and Kanye did the eulogy.”) But at its core, the song is an existential search that raises more questions than it answers. “How do you see me? How do you love me? How do you remember me?”
A lesser artist would have ended with “Forever” or another equally uplifting track, but what Noname proves on “Shadow Man” is that while she has not become complacent with death, she has accepted its inevitability. As she walked off stage, the song faded out with a prayer of sorts: “Bless the nightingale. Darkness keep you well.”
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