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Dance with me / I know I’m free / Dance with me / I know I’m free—Noname
This August brought us Telefone, a smooth, melodic, and dreamy masterpiece of a glimpse into the mind of a Black girl going through it. Facing life, death, (bad) habits, and internal ghosts, the listener rides along on the handlebars of Noname’s bicycle as the poet transports us through the streets of her beloved Chicago and the maze that is her beautiful and brilliant mind. Her parables are uniquely hers, articulated through the emotive quality and masterful resonance of her distinctive flow—low-key and measured, croaky and unbothered, modulated and quavering, but nonetheless firmly planted—Noname exposes the joys, pains, disturbances, and eccentricities of the ordinary in her long-awaited debut album.
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Timid in manner, through her tonal shifts and topical traipsing, she boldly exalts the act of meandering. The 25-year-old’s weighty lyricism paints meandering as a generational form of art—especially when juxtaposed against the constant urgency and uncertainty of life as Black girl in a poor neighborhood, rich with feeling. This fact of life is made painfully clear with [End Page 29] lyrics like I’m trying to re-imagine abracadabra from poverty / Like poof I made it disappear / Proof I’m made of happiness / Everything is everything / But I still haven’t paid my rent.
By the album’s midpoint, the artist’s intentions to bring us along on an unhurried stroll through her thoughts become evident. A few apathetic repetitions of I thought I was gone write a rap / I thought I was gone write a rap preface track 6. Echoing Nina Simone’s reflections on freedom, Noname’s “Interlude” is a manifesto on meandering that leaves the word-smith dazed and mumbling by the end. Ask any Black person with a beating pulse and political conscience and they’ll probably tell you it’s a familiar feeling. When out of nowhere, something casually reminds you of the ever-perilous state of yourself, and you’re all of a sudden distracted by pondering freedom.
She meanders, but not for nothing, working through personal beliefs and experience as they relate to what are oftentimes conflicting messages from a society that never loved us: And I know the money don’t really make me whole / The magazine covers drenched in gold / The dreams of granny in mansion and happy / The little things I need to save my soul. Whether it’s freedom, fame, loss, or vice, in Noname’s universe one is perpetually trying to figure it out.
Even more than meandering, Noname tells a story of coping as art.
Coping is talent. Coping is time and some wandering. Coping is all we have. Sometimes meandering is a means of coping, but that’s not always enough. Coping is multitudinous, but one thing is consistent: an intimate awareness of the art of coping is a principle in Black girlhood and a prerequisite for Black womanhood.
When I first heard Telefone, I heard an interrogation of how one manages to manage. I heard a tale of entrances and departures, and how to cope through the woes and joys of it all. “Casket Pretty” and “Bye Bye Baby” are somber and slow stories of lost loves and lost lives, which most directly underscore the significance of partings in Noname’s day to day.
From the harmonized background vocals of “Yesterday” to soulful runs in “Shadow Man,” classic R&B-influenced soliloquies, Sunday’s church bells and organs, and backyard barbeque soundscapes propel the album’s plot, showing us Noname’s hood and the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and aromas that comprise it. [End Page 30]
Heavy in layers, a musky cloud enveloped me, the all-too-familiar odor of smoke—a dusty, earthy burn emanated from the smoldering embers of the cigarette she clasped.
I had finally met one of my living idols, Alicia Garza. Talking with her for the brief moment I had was a dream, but there was nothing too special about the meeting itself. More pertinent for right now is the point...