We search for meaning. The quest to make our life matter is fundamental to human nature. Despite the universality of this pursuit, it can materialize in so many different ways. We may feel like we matter when we provide for our family. We may feel like we matter when we work on projects we care about. We may feel like we matter when we indulge in our vices. We may feel like we matter when we earn money and accolades. More than anything, we feel like we matter when our actions align with our values.
But when we lose the things that matter the most, it blindsides us and we have no choice but to reorient our values. The shiny and glittery things of the world suddenly seem hollow and gray, and the previously boring mundane moments become drenched with meaning. Noname examines this existential shift on “Yesterday”, the opener off her contemplative and gorgeous debut mixtape Telefone, as she searches for her soul in the wake of lost ones.
Noname’s 2016 mixtape Telefone burst softly onto the scene after a series of standout guest spots on mixtapes by Chance The Rapper — “Lost” on 2013’s Acid Rap and “Finish Line / Drown” on 2016’s Coloring Book. Her heartfelt lyrics and unique delivery were captivating, as her background as a poet gave a powerful spoken-word cadence and rhythm to her raps.
Telefone feels like it lives in the same musical and mental world of Chance’s Coloring Book, released a couple months prior, with its strong gospel, soul, and jazz influences and its deep Chicago roots. Yet it also lives in a more somber space, not overblown with joy, but aware of the sobering realities of the world while optimistic for growth and peace.
In a June 2015 interview with Green Room Magazine, Noname explained the philosophy behind her debut mixtape.
“Telefone will be the first project I ever put out. My first anything. I named it Telefone because I like the idea of what it means to be on the phone with someone for the very first time and all its little intricate idiosyncrasies. From the awkwardness to the laughter or various intimate conversations you can have over the phone, I want my project to be very conversational. I want people to feel like they’re on the phone with me, getting to know me better than a text message or a tweet.”
This intimacy, rawness, and vulnerability is lighted up through this tender and soulful album. As she navigates her introduction to the world, a common question comes up again and again.
What fills our soul?
“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”
Noname raps this opening refrain with softness and care, reflecting on the moments that brought her the most joy. These were not moments of attaining money or fame, but rather moments of conviction about the ability to take care of her grandmother. The journey to this realization can be a bumpy one but one that Noname has firmly realized for herself.
For many of us, we can find ourselves similarly disenchanted about the promises of external reward. We buy fancy things, pursue riches, and aspire for superficial accomplishments. We crave the hit of dopamine that distracts us from deep rooted pains in our soul and we are obscenely euphoric when we finally get that hit. But as the neurotransmitters stop pumping those chemicals, we are left with ourselves once again — empty and confused.
“Who am I? Gypsy rap, Gypsy need her dollar back / And all of that, my devil is only closer when I call him back / Liquor in a limelight, look her in the limelight / With fine wine and ecstasy, you can have the rest of me”
With introductory lines that are both dreary and crystal clear, Noname recognizes her inherent demons. Alcohol, drugs, and money call out to her and she finds herself more dependent on these substances the more she calls back. The darkness of this relationship is disturbingly palpable. Yet across these bars, there is an implicit and subtle coating of hope. With reference to her past stage name, Noname Gypsy, she signals that this dangerous cycle was a greater struggle for a younger and less seasoned Noname.
Throughout these lines, along with the rest of Telefone, Noname is deceptively skilled. She understandably raps more like a spoken word poet, and her calm and tempered delivery may give the false idea that she is not a wordsmith. Her lyrics are witty, clever, poignant, and thought provoking, and her vocals have a layered level of passion, pain, and empathy that moves and touches deeply. Her flow is steady and focused, easily gliding and bouncing over the fluffy beats, like someone hopping from cloud to cloud, careful not to veer too close to the sun or fall from the skies.
Her vocals are adorned by one of the most intricate, heartfelt, and purely beautiful productions that I’ve ever heard on a project. Telefone is full of glittery, jazzy, and soulful synths, mesmerizing piano keys, calming drum patterns, orchestral instrumentation, and luscious backing gospel choirs. The entire project engulfs you in this wholesome, flowery, and intimate space. The production and vocals meld together to elicit an outstanding peacefulness in a way few records can, yet with the subtlest layer of melancholy overlaid.
That melancholy emerges in the prettiest moments.
“When the sun is going down / When the dark is out to stay / I picture your smile, like it was yesterday”
Singers Akenya and TheMIND join Noname on the chorus to bring rich and soothing vocals that capture the melancholy that comes with sunsets. In those quieting minutes of daily transition, we reflect on our values, our identity, our loved ones, our future, and our past.
Throughout the song, Noname opens up about the recent traumas that have led to such intense contemplation.
“Me missing Brother Mike, like something heavy / Me heart just wasn’t ready; I wish I was a kid again/…My halo said goodbye and the floor hit me / Fill the lining in the pine box, my granny fill the time slot / ‘Don’t grow up too soon / Don’t blow the candles out, don’t let them cops get you’”
With a heart-wrenching mix of surreal and blunt wordplay, Noname reveals the deaths of fellow poet Brother Mike and her grandmother have weighed heavy on her heart. These events have made her disillusioned to the goals that are often glorified in mainstream hip-hop. She no longer wants to walk through these barren paths anymore and instead longs for simpler times.
While our specific experiences differ, this desperation for nostalgia is strikingly relatable. I miss being eight years old when my main worry was whether or not I could catch all my Sunday morning cartoons by the time I returned from the local farmer’s market with my mom. It was so easy then to make my soul full.
As with most adults, there are times when I feel that I’ve lost that ease. But as I reflect and reorient my own values, I am finding ways to decrease my materialistic tendencies, temper my obsession for external validation, work on passions that bring me fulfillment and self-respect, spend more time with family and close friends, and simply try to be a better human. These changes have only made me think more about how I want to navigate my limited days on this planet.
Like Noname, I find that these thoughts hold a great deal of weight.
“When I remember memories don’t last forever / When I deny my empty with an open letter / Who gon remember me? My satellite, my empathy”
We want to be remembered for the value we brought to the world, for the ways we touched the lives around us, for the smiles we brought on loved ones’ faces. The way we saved another’s soul for just a moment.
As the sun sets and the day comes to end, we are left with a rush of introspection, sadness, and calmness of another day gone. We are struck with a pang in our heart knowing that our tomorrows will quickly become our yesterdays. And we wonder to ourselves.
How did we spend today?