Everything is Everything
The music industry is changing rapidly. That’s nothing new—it’s a sentence we’ve all been reading in thousands of articles like this one over the past 10-15 years. I personally am not a music industry expert. I don’t know the ins and outs of production or what it takes to sell an album. But I don’t have to be an expert to understand that the music industry is experiencing something of a revolution, brought on particularly by the rap and hip-hop sector. Rap has a long history of independent and underground music, but getting signed to a label has always been the indicator of success, the key to going mainstream—until Chance the Rapper came along and changed all that. To my knowledge, he’s the first to find widespread success as an independent artist, and has even prompted award shows to open up categories for albums available only through streaming services.
That’s a major change, but even more remarkable is the door he is holding open for independent artists to go big on their own. Signing with a label doesn’t need to be a goal anymore. We’ve all heard stories of artists held back creatively by their labels, as well as those who were barred from making music at all—JoJo and Ke$ha both come to mind. The absence of a label allows artists complete creative control, as well as a more direct channel of communication with fans. And now that Chance has proved it can be done, I’m predicting (and desperately hoping for) more artists to achieve that power.
Up until recently, it was hard to talk about Chicago-based rapper Noname without mentioning Chance. It still kind of is—her features on his songs have brought about the bulk of her current recognition. The two met as teenagers attending Chicago’s YOUmedia program, described on its official website as “a 21st century teen learning space at Chicago Public Library.” Both show a lot of love for Chicago in their music and on their respective twitter accounts—clearly, that shared space had a major creative impact.
Noname started out as a poet—in an interview with General Admission, she told John Taylor “Before I started rapping, [Chance] loved my poetry, so a lot of our relationship was started through our love for each other’s art. Like, he would sit and spit me whatever new raps he had, and I would recite new poetry that I had to him.” She started to freestyle more and more, and eventually her focus shifted to making music. She started working on her album Telefone in 2013, and blessed us with a long-awaited Soundcloud release on July 26. Soon after, it became available on Apple Music and Spotify.
Telefone marks the start of a new conversation, one that’s all about Noname. There’s so much to analyze: her music is unique, especially in a world where it feels like everything has been done at some point or another. But she’s not without influences, of course; in rare interviews with Rolling Stone and The FADER, she names musicians like Nina Simone, Andre 3000, and Missy Elliott. She also has literary influences—Toni Morrison and poet Patricia Smith—but her sound is completely her own. She has a light, almost airy vibe, but she’s able to balance a relaxed sound with some pretty heavy topics. It’s easy to hear her experience as a poet, every line fits, every word carries intentionality. This is not an album you can listen to once and form an opinion. I’ve been listening constantly for the past few weeks and I still have more to unpack. It’s got the staying power that three years of work is bound to create. There’s a lot going on in the production—she worked with Saba, Cam O’bi, and Phoelix—it’s layer upon layer of instrumentals and interesting sound effects.
The features that made her famous are important, too. In “Warm Enough”, by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, she’s less of a feature and more of the main event, with Chance the Rapper and J Cole backing her up. It starts up with birds chirping along to an ethereal melody, soon joined by Noname’s equally ethereal singing:
“Who are you to tell me/I’m not warm enough for summertime?/I know that I can decide myself/But you don’t know me like the sun, you’ve never seen my horizon.”
Then she starts rapping, and the listener is entranced. Noname explores the same duality that we see in her album, that delicate balance between sun and shadow, in a narrative that focuses on a love story.
It’s not her first time focusing on love in a collaboration with Chance—the first song that really shot her recognition up was his “Lost”—he is addicted, and she is the drug. But these tracks are never mere love stories. They explore the empty feeling that marks our generation, how two people can unite to create something meaningful in the midst of an often miserable, harsh world.
Noname does so well with these serious subjects, yet a lot of her music is anything but. You can hear how much fun she’s having when she freestyles on “Last Dance,” from Lil B and Chance’s Free Based Freestyles Mixtape. You know when you’re talking to someone on the phone, and you can hear them smiling? It’s like that but better.
Born Fatimah Warner, Noname started her music career calling herself Noname Gypsy, but dropped that second part after learning of the negative impact of that word for many Romani and Romani-descended people. Which is so cool of her—she is learning and growing just like the rest of us, and she’s honest with the public about that. She’s unafraid to admit flaws and make mistakes, and that’s why we are so ready to forgive her. We don’t often hear people in the public eye, especially artists, say “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“Everything is everything.” This is a phrase Noname uses a lot, and it’s a theme that much of her music explores. Nothing happens in a vacuum, everything in the world is connected, we all belong to each other. Which sounds a little fake deep when I put it that way, but it’s so cool. She is spreading a philosophy on life that both accepts and questions, analyzes and finds peace. And she’s doing it without a label, in every sense of the word.
There are plenty of other independent artists out there determined to make it without a label, and there are those, like Drake and Frank Ocean, who have recently created their own. It’s no surprise that a genre made up of majority black artists is starting this movement. The history of black musicians being exploited by white recording executives goes back as far as the concept of recording labels has existed. Now, it’s finally time for a change.