A rare conversation with the Chicago rapper about patience, privacy, and her exceptional first solo project.
Noname’s debut project opens with “Yesterday,” a song that rises like the sun. Telefone is the 25-year-old Chicago rapper’s proper introduction, and it’s been a long time coming. I remember first hearing Noname, born Fatimah Warner, three years back on “Lost,” a quasi-love story about the intimacy of drug addiction on Chance the Rapper’s breakthrough mixtape, Acid Rap. Her voice was almost childlike in its pitch and inflections, and her delivery never felt settled, as if she was playing hopscotch in the spaces between the beat. She sounded like she had a million stories to tell, and I wanted to hear her tell them.
Telefone ended up taking three years to make it to us, but the finished product is unlike anything else out. There’s background harmonies that sound like New Age doo-wop, carefully orchestrated hand claps and finger snaps of every volume and variety, samples of baby coos, and ubiquitous, shimmering keys. At its core, Telefone is a conversation between Noname and anyone looking for a thread of logic to grasp onto during maddening times: part stifled rant, part friendly catch-up, part social commentary, and part sound advice.
Alongside her co-conspirators/executive producers Saba, Cam O’bi, and Phoelix, Noname has figured out how to administer a dose of reality without poisoning us with too much heaviness. You can visualize her smile as she raps, but it’s also clear that she’s spitting to sting the ignorant and uninformed. On “Casket Pretty,” she makes a confession: I am afraid of the dark, blue and the white / badges and pistols rejoice in the night. Her stark words can puncture your heart, but the weightlessness of her flow and the glow of the production do their best to sweeten the bitterness.
Noname is a messenger here to remind us to be more aware — of what we’re going through personally, and of outside factors like oppression and racism that are constantly, subtly at work. She moves at her own pace, and that carefulness is audible in her songs. “My purpose isn’t to just churn out a bunch of music,” she explained to me over FaceTime last week, after a three-date stint opening up for Ms. Lauryn Hill. “I’m trying to make music that people can live with and be with forever. That takes time.”
What were you doing at this time last year?
I wasn’t really doing anything. I was making random songs here and there. I had just moved into my apartment with two of my friends. We were getting ready to have a birthday party for me, so I remember planning for that. But in terms of music, I was pretty stagnant — not knowing where I wanted to go. I think I was doing feature verses here and there just to pay rent, but that was about it.
Your feature verses are how I got into you initially. I know there’s your verse on Mick Jenkins’s song [“Comfortable”], you’ve been on Chance’s songs, there’s a Lil B and Chance tape [Free] that you just popped up on, which was the greatest thing ever to me. I was like, How does she keep doing this? Do people come to you?
Yeah, usually people just hit me up. Chance and Mick, those are just the homies, so those happen more organically. I was randomly hanging out with Chance earlier that day when he ended up going to the studio to do the Lil B thing. So it was kind of like, “Oh! You’re here! Rap!” [laughs] And the other ones, I guess they had something real particular in mind. Like, “I want a female rapper on this song, I specifically want you on this song, come to the studio.” Chicago is a pretty small-knit circle of artists that work together all the time.
So, you now go by Noname. Previously, you were Noname Gypsy. What was that about?
I realized that [gypsy] was an offensive term. I came up with the name when I was like 18, when I was transitioning from writing poetry to making music. I was under the impression that gypsies were very nomadic, just not about staying in one space for a long time. That was kind of my only knowledge [of them] — it was very ignorant.
Fair, we’ve all been there.
I was like, Oh shit, let me do some further research. I’m not about this at all ... this is not who I am as a person. I never intended to offend anyone, so I took it out. Now, I’m just Noname.
Noname. What does that mean for you?
I try to exist without binding myself to labels. I’m not really into labels at all, even the way I dress; I usually don’t wear anything with a name brand. For me, not having a name expands my creativity. I’m able to do anything. Noname could potentially be a nurse, Noname could be a screenwriter. I’m not limited to any one category of art or other existence, on a more existential level.
To be frank, I’ve never heard anybody who sounds like you. Who are some of your influences?
I probably got most of my inspiration from writers. I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, so a lot of my writing is inspired by her writing, as well as Nina Simone. There’s a poet named Patricia Smith who’s really dope. So, more like novelists and poets. My mom owned a bookstore for like 20 years. She met my dad because he was a book distributor. It’s interesting because I was never reading as a kid — I hated reading until the later years of my high-school career. And then randomly I was like, Oh my God, literature is my life! [laughs]
You definitely have a very literary style. You’re a storyteller. What is your writing process like?
I’m usually in the studio when I write, or at the crib. All of Telefone was written once the music was made, or a draft of the production. I did a lot of the recording for it in L.A. in this Airbnb we rented. There was a balcony attached, so I was writing a lot there, just outside, or in a park somewhere.
That is really tight, because it sounds like your music is very airy and open, warm and sunny — even when you’re talking about shit that is not like that at all. How much influence do you have over production?
It’s a give and pull. Usually, they will produce the record, then I’ll come back and be like, "OK, pull out the piano right here, put the drums right here" — editing, playing around with what they’ve already created. I let them creatively go crazy and then from there we find a balance, that way it still sounds like a Noname song.
When I first heard it, I tweeted that this project is one of the most perfectly produced albums for the artist that I’ve heard in a long time. Telefone sounds, front to back, just like you. I wanted to commend you because that’s not an easy thing to do. Did you reach out to any new people to produce or are these the homies?
We kept everything in-house. These are people who I’ve known for the past couple years: Saba, who’s also a rapper. Phoelix, who, if you’re hearing backgrounds on any song, he’s probably a part of those harmonies. And then Cam O’bi, who’s done production with several other artists. We’re friends, we have a good relationship. I would just rather make music with artists who I have some sort of a connection with. That way when we challenge each other, it’s coming from a very healthy place as opposed to me just turning down somebody’s idea like, “You don’t know me, you don’t know my vision!” The features, too. They’re all people who I consider the homie.
That actually was Saba, the record was produced like that. That’s how I first heard it, I was like, “Yee, you went crazy! I have to rap on this.” That was his whole idea and I kept it because it was super cute. I feel like it brings this lightheartedness to the record.
So how long did you work on Telefone?
2013 is when I started hashtagging it. Then I didn’t put anything out for like, a shit ton of years. I made “All I Need” this past winter, and that was the first record that ended up being the start of Telefone. So, maybe nine months? But there’s a lot of life and mental shit that happened within those three years that also was a part of the work, in a way.
That makes sense, because the things you’re talking about are very personal life developments. What does “Telefone” mean, in terms of this project and how it relates to you?
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. I wanted it to have all of that awkwardness and laughter and the moments of silence where it’s like, “Ugh, this is really awkward and I don’t know what to say right now.” But you’re excited to tell them new things about yourself. That’s what it started off as. 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. It’s my only access to the world around me, aside from a physical one-on-one interaction, because I don’t have a computer. I’m on my manager’s computer right now.
Do you mind if I ask why you don’t have a computer?
I’m just broke — but I’m gonna get a computer! Now that Telefone is out, more money is starting to come in, slowly. I’m not signed, I’m an independent artist. So whatever money comes in, it goes back into the brand, into making music, paying for Ubers to the studio, all of that shit adds up. So, definitely not out here flossing. Very, very living within my means right now. But I’m planning to get one soon. I’m gonna get one.
It’s just like a big phone, same thing. So, I guess I’ll ask about “Casket Pretty.” It’s probably my favorite song on the album. Is there a specific story behind that song, or is it a culmination of everything you see around you?
It’s definitely a culmination. This past summer especially has been very brutal to people of color around the world. But specifically in terms of police brutality, we’ve seen just an array of violence everywhere in the United States. I think seeing so much of that prompted the song, seeing how those things affect not only myself, but people around me who I love. It’s interesting because there’s a baby sample in the beat; it sounds so happy. I don’t know what made me write that to that beat. For whatever reason, I tend to find melancholy in instrumentals that people think are innately happy.
When Telefone dropped, that was the song that I saw people independently tweeting out — that’s the song for a lot of people. How did you feel when you finished it?
That song was actually the last one that made it on the project. I wrote it like two days before the tape dropped on some purge shit. Like, I need to just get this off my spirit. We were done recording. It was time to just get it mixed and mastered, and I was like, “Yo ... I think this shit is hot, I think this shit is important. I have to put this on the tape.” So I recorded it, and Cam [O’bi] pointed out that the melody that I was using was off-key. Also the way I rapped it, the hook is very in time, but also not in time. I fought for it, and we kept it exactly the same. It’s not supposed to sound pretty, it’s not supposed to be in key. It’s supposed to be harsh to listen to.
That makes me appreciate it even more. Is that your favorite song on the project then, or does another one have your heart?
I think “Bye Bye Baby” is my favorite. I haven’t done any interviews post the tape dropping, so a lot of the write-ups I’ve seen, people think I’m talking about my own personal experience. That’s not what that song is. It’s a personification of a mother who has had an abortion, and the baby. What I tried to do is make a love song for them. I feel like whenever I hear people talking about abortion, they typically take the love out of it, as if it can never be a loving act — as if it’s only done out of hate or desperation. I know women who have gone through that experience. And there hasn’t been like, a song for them, or a moment of catharsis and healing for them in music. There probably is — there’s so much music — but I haven’t heard it, especially not in hip-hop. I want them to be able to have this because there’s been songs that have been healing for me in other ways. That shit was just important to me as a woman, as someone who cares about these women.
“For whatever reason, I tend to find melancholy in instrumentals that people think are innately happy.”
What is it like for you to be a black woman in 2016?
Outside of all the violence and the death, take away all of the institutionalized oppression and colorism that exists — it’s fun as hell. Black women are taking over. I’m living in a time when Serena Williams is the greatest athlete in the world. Lemonade just came out and that shit was fucking fantastic. Ava DuVernay just aired her show [Queen Sugar]. Black women are going stupid right now. It’s very empowering to see. I feel good.
As an artist who wants privacy, how do you take care of yourself?
Stuff like this, I don’t usually do. I don’t typically do interviews. It’s just not my shit. I’m a very reserved person — even the whole “Noname” thing is also about this idea of not being so readily in people’s faces all the time. I’m a very in-the-cut kind of person. I typically like to be in the background. So, it’s just making sure that I figure out healthy ways to compromise. I know I can’t go and have a healthy career without doing any press or anything. At least not right now.
What advice would you give to people who listen to your music and want more from you? How can we support you?
Just being mindful that I am a person. My purpose isn’t to just churn out a bunch of music. I care about how the music sounds. I want it to be good. I hate that we live in this immediate gratification age. Our culture right now is so gimme, gimme, gimme. It’s OK to be anxious, just be understanding of the fact that we need our time to grow and learn and deal with whatever we’re dealing with personally before we can just churn out a bunch of material. People have to live in order to have material to even create art about.
Have you always been about being your own personal self and not a public persona?
Yeah, I have. I’m really kind of a lame. I was thinking about that the other day, because I had to do the photo shoot for this interview. And I’m so socially awkward. Even the way I dress — I don’t have an aesthetic. If I had an aesthetic, I feel like it would be so much easier. But this is kinda just who I am. Also, the artistic community that I came up in — it was never a thought to be anything other than myself. That was what was always important.I just really like hip-hop, and I really like writing. So, I just do that to the best of my ability, and then everything else just kind of comes as it comes.