Although my official language is English, my preferred dialect is actually pop-culture.
So, being the Seinfeld-loving, hot-dog and hip-hop enthusiast I am, the first time I stepped foot onto New York’s concrete soil I felt so culturally fluent I wondered if this was the home that life had originally planned for me.
Maybe I got a rogue stork that accidentally delivered me to Australia. I guess we’ll never really know.
NYC was just so familiar. There was Dean and Deluca where Felicity worked. Then as I hotfooted through Chinatown and on to Brooklyn, PJ Harvey’s love-and-lust-fuelled musings on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea flooded back to me and became the soundtrack of my afternoon.
I was even served an over-sized meat sandwich by a bossy older deli-waitress who I can only assume was Grandma Yetta’s sister.
New York was the only place I’d ever truly desired to visit as a youngster and every logically numbered corner of it lived up to all my hype. I was basically Jay Z and Alicia Keys in Empire State of Mind.
Not to take away from my love for the Big Apple but in recent years I’ve had more of an Illinois-state of mind, thanks to my new Amurrrican hero, Chicago.
It’s not because the young basketballing me wanted to be like the-Chicago-Bulls-era Mike. Or even that the young-adult clubbing me became infatuated with early 2000’s house music derived of the genre’s original birthing in 1980s Chicago.
Not even because I might be word perfect on Chicago the musical.
However, I am talking about the guy who once claimed that he ‘played a big role in Chicago, like Queen La-ti-fa’. That’s right, it was the complex genius of one Mr. Kanye West, the world’s most NOtorious Chi-guy that had me at ‘HURGHHHH’.
It seems fitting that on the 14th anniversary of his debut album, the College Dropout, I get to acknowledge just how much it inspired me to take a hip-hopping adventure from Chicago across the US without leaving my house. It’s the reason I’m the beyond-excitable rap fan that writes to you this day.
Now there’s another Chicagoan who is pushing my musical boundaries even further and opening up a whole new world. Her name is Noname and her music and lyricism feel as much steeped in traditional poetry as they do in innovative jazzy rap.
This might be why she reminds me just a little of the Words and Sounds Jill Scott had me swooning over all of those years ago. Like Jill Scott, Noname developed her craft in the world of spoken word-poetry before transitioning to a master of music.
After some feature slots, including the song Lost on Chance the Rapper’s brilliant debut mixtape Acid Rap, Noname released her own mixtape in 2016, called Telefone.
Conceptually, it’s built around the idea of multiple one way conversations (FYI – my favourite kind, depending on the direction) each in the form of a song and all inspired by ones Noname has had in real life.
This album – and Noname herself – was my favourite discovery of 2017. It and she are that good.
It’s such a beautiful album even though the subtext is darker than it sounds on the surface.
Sure, life in Noname’s world is dark and very real (more than yours or mine) and she doesn’t shy away from talking about it. But that’s not what the album leaves you with. It’s overwhelming feeling is one of hope and optimism.
Still, these two normally opposing shades of light and dark are a thread throughout the whole album. Yet they never feel like conflicting forces. I can’t think of a time where these two extremes have worked together so harmoniously.
That’s largely thanks to the jazzy beauty of the easy summery beats and Noname’s melodic sing-song of the lyrics. Together they are so buoyant that at times you feel like you might float away with them, even hoping so.
It’s disarming like that. You dream away and escape to her blissful world sometimes forgetting before hearing something that reminds you of the reality that sits just underneath the surface.
Watching her Tiny Desk Concert (the brilliant NPR series you can find on YouTube) Noname is warm, humble and unassuming – traits that also shine through in her music. She is as effortlessly likable as her music.
It also shows an amazingly accomplished young performer with big ideas delivered simply and a unique take on poetry, rap and music – the lines between them have never seemed so non-existent.
All those things said, it’s ultimately Noname’s spirit that is the star of the show. It’s also the reason it succeeds with such assuredness.
Noname is a master communicator. Her stream of consciousness-type honesty and easy way around intricate phrases make these stories feel familiar and intimate, despite being worlds away in reality. She is as much a poet as she is a musician.
I know poetry can be a scary high-brow concept to some of us lay folk. That’s definitely true for me.
So, I asked my clever literary teacher-friend to give me the shortest most layperson explanation of what poetry is.
She texted “hmmm, maybe as a genre in which the sound and shape of language is manipulated in order to explore ideas underlying the ordinary experience?”
Sounds a lot like rap music to me, which I already ‘knew’ was poetry. Although her and I both agreed that this applies to Kendrick rather than Pitbull.
Telefone is the closest thing I have come to enjoying poetry in what feels like a more pure or traditional form. And those ‘ordinary experiences’ are what this album is built on and what makes it so extraordinary.
It seems fitting that the city responsible for my love of rap is now taking me on a new journey, building on the foundation set by my beloved hip-hop.
Where will it take me next? Who knows. What I do know is that my ears and mind will be more open than they have been in the past to this world and that can only be a good thing.
It’s not an overstatement to say I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to experience this album. It’s a rare feast and one I’m still listening to, thinking about and enjoying one year on.
I recently bought the vinyl and a poster which I am going to frame because I want Noname and her grand spirit to be front and centre of my musical memory for a long time to come. I have a lot more to learn from her yet.
Or watch and enjoy her delightful Tiny Desk Concert here.