Fatimah Warner’s world is a reflection of herself: a “hotchpotch”, she calls it. Raised in Chicago, the rapper known as Noname now lives in LA in a Chinese temple-style apartment building, conspicuously painted in red and gold. By contrast, her Noname persona is “in the background” – this is an artist who keeps her cards close to her chest. She’s a perfectionist, known for maintaining a degree of anonymity, wiping her social-media slate clean on a regular basis, and for her startlingly original 2016 debut, Telefone, which dropped out of the blue three years after she first announced it. That album’s cover features a doe-eyed young girl against a pale lilac background. Flowers crawl up her side, and a skull sits atop her head. “(She’s) so young-looking, but her expression is also kind of washed,” says the musician of her now near- iconic cover girl. “A stale face, almost stoic, but damn-near sad.”
When the real Noname answers the door today, she is warm and welcoming, if a little shy. Her on-stage style feels plucked from the cheery palette of a Wes Anderson film, but right now she is sans make-up, and wearing what look like pyjamas. Chatting in her living room – the walls lined with a bohemian tapestry, an upright piano beside the front door covered in collected treasures – she conveys a real sense of pride for her hometown of Chicago, despite its “brutal” winters. But she lights up when talking about her new life in Los Angeles; you might describe her as sunny with a strong dose of melancholy, a lot like her new adopted city.
On Telefone, Noname poetically ponders the duality of light and dark, juxtaposing tragic descriptions of police brutality and violence with imagery of an inspired, close-knit community. The album pairs playful, jazzy, gospel-tinged production, sometimes with the chime of a marimba or a baby’s laughter, with lyrics that delve into depression, loneliness and, her most-covered topic, death. For new fans, this bundle of contradictions was a revelation – and, with everything that’s happened this year, this pastel-hued soundtrack to a socially tumultuous US sounds more relevant than ever.
“Death is probably the most interesting thing to me because it’s so final, it’s so the opposite of everything I know,” says Noname, reflecting on her morbid tendencies. “It’s because everything I know is life. I write about death for the underdog – for the mother who had to have an abortion because shit sucks sometimes, or the mother who had to bury her son because the police kill kids. I feel those stories about death need to be told. They need to be supported with production that is, like, beautiful.”
“I’ve been going through a transition — I’ve been sad, but there’s also an underlying serenity to it. That’s the type of music I’m trying to make” — Noname
Though the cult success of Telefone has earned her interest from record labels, Noname has opted to stay independent – she wants to work at her own pace without some executive breathing down her neck. She also needs to spend time living a normal life in order to be able to write. “In order for artists to create, they literally have to live to have material to even write about,” she says, describing where she’s at in writing a follow-up. “I’m the type to take (things) in and then crank out an album ina a month – that’s what I did with Telefone. Like, live, live, live, and then just” – she snaps her fingers – “spit it out. Regurgitate it.”
Until that moment comes, Noname’s been concentrating on herself – taking it slowly with her next record and spending time with friends. If she goes out, she says, she’s usually at one of the handful of comedy clubs – The Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory, the Improv – that dot the Sunset Strip and Hollywood, hanging with the performers.
It’s a dramatic shift from Noname’s routine in Chicago, where her life was centred on poetry – which eventually led her to hip hop and a close circle of friends including Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa and Saba. “Yeah, it’s random,” she says. “All my friends being rappers to all my friends being comedians. But it’s cool.”
Years ago, Noname and her friends were a bunch of high-schoolers going to teen poetry writing workshops in the back of the Harold Washington Public Library. “We’d get, like, 300 kids coming,” she says. “All the kids in different schools around the city knew that Wednesday was the day we’d host an open mic.” Back then, Warner, Chance, Jenkins and the others were all taking their first stabs at writing – Noname admits hers were pretty “terrible”. “My old music was so fucking heady for no reason. Me just trying to be overly deep.”
Since then, Noname and her circle have spearheaded a change in the music industry. For instance, Chance the Rapper, an independent artist, made history when Coloring Book became the first streaming-only album to be nominated for – and win – a Grammy. “Chance is the initial catalyst for it, ’cos he’s done it the most successfully on the highest level. To win those Grammys was a symbol for so many artists,” she says. “I think he really just scared the entire industry.
“It keeps you believing,” Noname continues. “Especially being black, too, and not having to rely on any sort of white entity for your upliftment, it’s just a very powerful thing. You know what I mean?”
Noname, in her own way, is also shaking up the industry. Without any label support, she released one of the most influential rap albums of 2016, and, through touring, has been able to see the world – something she never thought she’d have the opportunity to do. “I mean, Telefone damn-near went viral,” she says. “The way it spread... I did a sold-out show in Tel-Aviv in Israel. Over 1,000 people, in Israel! That’s crazy... The album was really popular out there. The internet is insane, for one. Thank you to the internet gods.”
Despite her love-hate relationship with social media, Noname often connects with her fanbase online. She retweets fans’ stories of how her live show made them cry, as well as their renditions of Telefone’s album art. “Some people come to the show and they hand it to me, some people will just take pictures and be like, ‘I made Telefone!’ Wow, you just repainted that. That is crazy.” One girl even recreated the cover on her graduation cap. “That’s like, ‘Yes, humanity!’ That’s dope. We had a human interaction.”
Though Telefone was released just over a year ago, Noname was much younger then, figuratively speaking. “My voice has changed since then. I sound so young,” she says, noting that she recently revisited the album and was taken aback by how “PG” it sounded. “My next album, it’s not gonna be that girl,” she says with a laugh. “Won’t be that at all.” The biggest lesson from that record was that she was even able to share her own music with the world. “For the longest time I didn’t think I’d be brave enough to do that,” she says. “It’s really hard to put your art into the world, because people can be so brutal. I learned that I have more self-love than I thought. Every day on tour I was getting up and performing, even when I had bouts of depression. It was an act of self-love to persevere.”
Another way her life has been reshaped is her new openness to intimacy. “I learned I was willing to receive love – romantic love – because I’d been extremely closed-off,” she adds. “(It was) a fear of rejection, insecurities about my body and how I look. I was not really open to anybody. And then I was.” She reveals that she’s recently gone through a breakup, but seems philosophical. “I’ve been going through a transition with someone who I was talking to recently. I’ve been sad, but there’s also a kind of underlying serenity to it. I don’t know. I think that’s the type of music I’m trying to make.”
Though she announced it in July, Room 25, Noname’s forthcoming project, has no firm release date (it’s tentatively due this year). But if Telefone is anything to go by, it will be well worth the wait. “There’s just so much more that I wanna do and tap into, so much more I wanna learn about myself and the world around me,” she says. “That’s kinda where I’m at, on some hippy-dippy-vibey shit.”
That infectious optimism could be down to her new home, as Noname explains how the city has added more “textures” to her already dynamic style. “Being here kind of informs my music, because I’m creating off of my own mood. I notice it’s a lot more jovial,” she says. “If the subject-matter is still kind of heavy, at least the production sounds a little bubblier. I love LA for that. Making art here is great.”
Hair Blake Erik at Statement Artists using Bumble and bumble., make-up Ingeborg using Surratt Beauty, photographic assistant Trey Badami, styling assistants Ioana Ivan, Breno Votto