The Making of Noname's 'Telefone'

“In this industry, good working relationships aren’t the norm.”

Real friends can be hard to find and keep in the music industry. Feuds over finances cripple independent teams. Labels force artists, producers, and writers together and expect magic to happen overnight. Genuine people are hard to come by.

Noname, born Fatimah Warner, wields a weapon foreign to most artists: long friendships with talented creatives. On July 31, hip-hop’s tectonic plates shifted ever so slightly. The tremor signaled the arrival of the future, for Chicago’s prodigal daughter had shared her debut album with the world. The road to release was long and littered with dead ends. Fans had waited years for a project from the soft-spoken songstress who first turned heads with her guest feature on Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap cut, “Lost.”

Earlier this year, something changed. Noname rallied a team. As spring turned to summer and Chicago days became LA nights, the roster expanded to encompass more than a dozen individuals who wanted little more than to see her—and each other—win. The result? An environment built on trust. The micro-community fostered by Noname and her core team enabled Telefone’s very existence. Some collaborators, such as Eryn Allen Kane and Nikko Washington, helped propel Save Money’s initial surge. Others, like 17-year-old artist Ravyn Lenae, are new to the scene but integral to the city’s next generation of stars. Smino calls St. Louis, a sister city, home, yet fits in effortlessly. Mutual admiration bridges gaps.

“Friendship is underrated, in hip-hop especially,” Saba tells us. “But it’s changing the world right now via Chicago music.”

However grandiose the claim, it’s hardly an overstatement. An unbreakable wave of togetherness has come to define a significant chunk of Chicago’s music scene in recent years, providing light in dark times. A number of these relationships date back years.

When Noname stepped up to a mic for one of the first times and recorded “Lost,” L10, the engineer behind Acid Rap and portions of Coloring Book, watched in amazement. Life would go full circle when Noname asked him to engineer her debut effort after seeing him mix her verse on Coloring Book’s “Drown.” Saba, Joseph Chilliams, and Akenya considered the 24-year-old a dear friend long before an opportunity arose to make history.

Noname, Saba, Cam, and Phoelix grew into something of an immediate family, relocating to Los Angeles for a warm summer month to live and work without distraction. It was there, beneath a golden sun, they created andor finalized Telefone's pieces and parts. Two Airbnb rentals housed makeshift studios, home cooking (Noname banned Domino’s pizza early in the trip), and many, many movies. Under one roof, trust trumped ego, and that mentality defined every session no matter the location.

Some of Noname’s peers took to calling her the Jay Electronica of Chicago, doubting whether her debut would ever see the light of day. Months removed from its release, it’s evident that Telefone was worth the wait. From the producers behind every note to the featured artists who helped construct Noname’s world, we spoke to the album’s major players to see how it all went down. This is the making of Telefone.

The Players
Cam O’bi — Executive Producer / Artist
Phoelix — Executive Producer / Artist
Saba — Artist / Producer
Ravyn Lenae — Artist
Akenya — Artist
Nikko Washington — Art Director
theMIND - Artist
Eryn Allen Kane - Artist
Smino - Artist
THEMpeople - Producers / Artist Collective
L10 - Mix/Master Engineer
Monte Booker - Producer
Joseph Chilliams - Artist
Xavier Omär - Artist

  • The Cover Art

    Artwork: Nikko Washington

    “I did the covers for Noname’s ‘All I Need’ and ‘Freedom Interlude’ singles,” Save Money’s art director Nikko Washington explains. “At that time, I was definitely all in to do the album. Then I tried to ease out of doing covers.”

    Washington wanted to move away from client services and pursue his own vision. Noname was an exception. Loose conversations eventually resulted in a piece of art as double-edged as the music itself. Noname wanted to depict the balancing act of life and death. Nikko wanted to paint that picture.

    “I wanted to do an actual, physical painting for this project, which I had never done," Nikko said. "I’ve never hand-painted physical artwork then photographed it for a cover.”

    “I wanted to do a child—not necessarily her, but a reflection of a young African-American child in this world right now. I tried to make her represent Noname, but not be her. She can’t see the skull on top of her head—nobody can—because she can’t see that death is coming. You know it’s there but you can’t see it. It’s beautiful while it lasts.”

    Telefone deserved a high-caliber cover to match its contents, but Washington managed to go a step further, translating messages delivered in one medium—music—to a visual one. “That album is her,” he says. “It’s true to herself. Chicago needs different perspectives, not just male hip-hop artists or men in general saying the same thing.”

  • "Yesterday"

    Producers: Cam O’bi, Saba, and Phoelix

    Layers of intimate warmth lead off Noname’s Telefone, a sonic sunrise that has dipped behind the horizon by the song’s end.

    “Yesterday” originated long before most of the other songs. Saba, best known as a vocalist but well-versed in production, had versions dating back to January and December. Noname stood beside him as he first started to tinker in his basement. Phoelix, also responsible for executive production, entered the fray just a week later, taking Saba’s work and enhancing it the same day Noname recorded her verses. For months, the artists would rarely go a day without working together.

    Phoelix brought a fresh mix of chords and textures before passing files off to O’bi. The Justice League producer soon convinced his friends of the song’s final placement, revamping the drums, arrangements, and vocals as he leaned on a few tricks to push “Yesterday” to another tier. He even sampled himself to lend chipmunk soul to the second verse, digging deep into his toolbox in the name of harmonic flourish.

    “Ever since I first heard it, I knew it was going to be the intro,” Cam tells us. “No one was about it. I was like, ‘Trust me’ [Laughs]. It needed a lot of work, it wasn’t ready, but I knew it wasn’t a song to give up on. I guess that speaks to my role as a producer. I’m always aware of the bigger picture and and thinking ahead to see what things can be before they actually are.”

    That trust between artist and producer can make or break projects. - Cam o'bi

    What O’bi calls Telefone’s biggest production challenge proved to be worth the back-and-forth. “Yesterday” arose from that family mentality that would define the creative process. “Not everyone trusts me like they do,” he says, almost audibly thankful when discussing his "musical family." “That trust between artist and producer can make or break projects.”

    “‘Yesterday’ is a sad song,” Saba explains. “A lot of those lyrics are about Brother Mike, our mentor at YouMedia [who passed away]. Starting off this project like that, it was kind of crazy but it made so much sense. By the end I was like, ‘I can’t believe I questioned this.’"

    “Being from Chicago, I understand how so many people feel,” Phoelix explains. “For that to be the first thing they hear, it’s powerful.”

    theMIND witnessed that power play out first-hand: “I had seen Noname perform ‘Yesterday’ at an anti-gun rally in Chicago and people broke into tears. The song wasn’t finished and I was like, ‘Damn, I’d love to be a part of this.’ I was glad they even used my vocals because I love that song to death. It’s heart-wrenching.”

  • "Diddy Bop"

    Producers: Phoelix and Cam O’bi
    Featuring: Cam O’bi and Raury

    Noname knows best. During the team’s LA retreat, Phoelix, running on fumes, began to explore options for a new song. Noname had given the multi-instrumentalist ideas that would morph into “Diddy Bop,” but he was struggling to hit his stride. Around 3 a.m., after a pair of failed beat attempts, Noname offered advice: “Make it when the sun comes up, you’ll feel better.”

    “I was like, ‘Mannn, let me do this, I got it,’” Phoelix says as Saba laughs at the story. “I made two that night and she didn’t like either of them, they just weren’t right. Then I made one in the morning and she was like, ‘See, this is it. I told you when the sun comes up!’ She was right.”

    Make it when the sun comes up, you’ll feel better. - Noname

    “I went to sleep thinking, ‘I don’t know if this song is going to happen, if even Phoelix can’t do it,’” O’bi remembers. “Then I woke up and he started playing all the chords. I said, ‘OH SHIT’ so loud [Laughs].”

    From there, collaboration took over. Phoelix passed the baton to Cam, who replaced the drums and added a hook that Phoelix harmonized with. Saba had a front-row seat to watch the process.

    “That was one of the songs that relied on the trust we have. Phoelix created the entire beat then Cam heard it in a different way. For him to say, ‘Hey, let me put a different idea on this,’ there’s a lot of trust. You’re so attached to your idea as a producer, but when you trust someone will enhance your vision, rather than change it, everything makes sense.”

    “That was a big challenge,” Cam agrees. “We worked on it as a unit. Sometimes my energy or creativity would be down, and Saba or Phoelix would step in and inspire me again. I never could have done that by myself. It was Phoelix’s idea and I just polished it.”

    Raury’s tongue-twisting, cosmos-crossing guest verse adds yet another perspective to an already dense record. The Atlanta artist wasted no time recording his feature. “He seemed just as dedicated to the song as everybody else who worked on it,” Saba says.

    Wedged between Noname and Raury is Cam, who stepped out from behind the boards to co-star as a credited vocalist for the first time.

    “I ended up writing to the song and that had never happened to me before,” Cam admits. “Being inspired by someone else’s beat. I’m just used to producing a beat, not being an artist all of a sudden. It’s nerve-wracking for sure. I hated my voice on there for so long—I sound like a little kid. “What’s cool is that every producer stepped into the booth for that song. It’s rare. Everyone was doing everything.”

  • "All I Need"

    Producer: Saba
    Featuring: Xavier Omär

    Like “Yesterday,” Telefone​'s lead single predates most of the album’s material. Saba concocted the bed of thick, viscous sounds and jittery synths, before Phoelix and Cam joined the team. Los Angeles was still a long way off. The rapper-producer nearly used the beat for himself, but Noname’s wishes won out.

    “She didn’t like a lot of the music when it was just me, so anytime Noname did want something, even if I planned to use it for myself, I’d be like, ‘Take it, take it!’”

    Saba credits the song’s success to post-production, which includes an added bass line from THEMpeople, as much as he does himself. Nearly 1.6 million SoundCloud plays later, “All I Need” has exceeded everyone’s expectations. The track was meant to be nothing more than a loosie that enabled its chief author to release something.

    “She was doing it for herself,” Saba explains. “Noname just really wanted to put out a song. It only became a single for Telefone after the fact. As an artist, putting out music is hard. She just went for it, and it became a strong part of the project over time.”

    She’s not just one of the best female rappers, she’s one of the best rappers. - Xavier Omär

    Xavier Omär, an artist with two projects under his belt and Soulection ties, handles the hook. Noname reached out to the recording artist on Twitter, hoping to connect in person for a session. He was surprised, and honored, by the request.

    “All she said was, ‘Would you be willing to work with me?’ I was baffled by the question because, duh, I’d work with her! She’s not just one of the best female rappers, she’s one of the best rappers.”

    A Chicago address led Xavier to Saba’s house, where he, Jamila Woods, and Noname were waiting for him. That early establishment of a collaborative approach reflects the mentality of a close-knit group of artists from the Midwest, and held true for Telefone’s entire creation. Several discussions and a quick game of WWE 2K16 later, a concept surfaced and the chorus followed soon after.

  • "Reality Check"

    Producers: Cam O’bi
    Featuring: Akenya and Eryn Allen Kane

    Coincidence and a dash of homage paved the way for “Reality Check.” Cam, in love with Kanye West’s “30 Hours,” hoped to create something inspired by the throwback Pablo cut. Meanwhile, Noname was off writing a verse to that very song. When she asked him to work on a a beat influenced by the track he’d spun back endlessly, O’bi simply responded, “Hell yeah.”

    They made it on the spot.

    “I never actually listened to '30 Hours’ while we were making ‘Reality Check,’” he explains. “It was in the back of my head, but my memory of songs strays from the song itself, and I kind of like that because it lets me make something different. I did the drum beat similar to how I remember '30 Hours’ and it ended up sounding nothing like it [Laughs]. I loved it though.”

    The initial chorus melody belonged to O’bi, but Noname heard another voice. Top-line brainstorms brought the camp to SZA (“We were going to have her at first but it fell through.”) and Emily King (“She’s dope as hell, but that didn’t work out either.”) before happenstance and friendship once again prevailed. Chicago staple Eryn Allen Kane was in LA with a household studio setup. Close with Cam’s girlfriend, Eryn invited the couple to kick it and make music. An impromptu listening session compelled Eryn to join Noname’s cause. O’bi remembers the moment well.

    “I played her ‘Shadow Man,’ and she was so amazed she ended up texting Noname, like, ‘Oh my god! I love everything! I’d love to be a part of it.’ That’s what made Noname think, ‘We should probably see if she’d sing on ‘Reality Check.’ Neither of us had thought of that before.”

    Like Raury, Eryn raced to finish her feature, but not without stunning Cam first.

    “Eryn produces her songs and she doesn’t even know it,” he explains. “She’ll beatbox the drums, imitate a trumpet part she hears, then she’ll sing the lead. She’ll take songs from that to an actual band. It’s like she creates a map. She thinks because she doesn’t know music theory she can’t be a producer, but she is.”

    Kane, a self-professed “last minute addition to Telefone,” had little time to work her magic.


    “It was the Friday before Telefone was scheduled to drop,” she says. “I performed a little song with Saba at Lollapalooza, then scrambled to the studio to record the hook. I finished recording within a couple hours and sent it back. The project came out that Sunday. I’m honored to have been a part of such a beautiful body of work. I adore Fatimah and am inspired by her lyricism.”

    Days prior to Eryn’s involvement, Akenya—another talented member of the local scene who provides vocals to conclude “Yesterday”—contributed to “Reality Check.” She was the first person to record a chorus for the song. Rather than choose between Eryn and Akenya, Cam and engineer L10 took the best of both worlds, using the latter’s work as an outro. The shared spotlight touched Akenya, who considers Noname a best friend and awaited Telefone just like the rest of us.

    “When she showed me the song, I was so inspired by the music and the theme of the lyrics that I was instantly wanting to create. I wrote the melody in like five minutes, lyrics in ten. I recorded it a day later, when I was actually really sick, so I’m glad I ended up being able to pull it together because the album dropped about five days later! Telefone is truly a labor of love, friendship, talent, and Chicago innovators. The album sounds cohesive and beautiful because that was the energy surrounding the project.”

    Better still, three strong women anchor the album’s midpoint, tethering Telefone to a new wave of artists who can go neck-and-neck with anyone. The roster, a moment in itself, lends weight to the hook’s core: “You are powerful / Beyond what you imagine / Just let your light glow.” Independence is celebrated in the company of friends.

  • "Casket Pretty"

    Producers: Saba and Phoelix

    An infant giggles as Noname describes death in a city where telephone calls spark dread, in a country rife with police brutality. “Casket Pretty” overflows with some of Telefone’s most memorable, brutal lyrics, framing funeral processions through the eyes of children with a lot to lose.

    The sweet beat, tailor-made for a nostalgia trip, becomes a tool to disarm listeners much like Chance the Rapper’s hidden Acid Rap interlude, “Paranoia.” But the track almost didn’t happen. Saba and Phoelix were pleasantly surprised to hear that Noname, at first hesitant, had recorded to their song, a late entry for the album’s final track list. “We super wanted her to use it and she was like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,’” Phoelix says. “Her rap did exactly what it was supposed to do. The emotions in the music, she said exactly what that was.”

    I probably heard the final version of that the same day you heard it. - Saba

    Saba can remember hearing a draft for the first time. “We made that beat for Noname but I couldn’t tell if she was going to use it. When we got back to Chicago and Telefone was in mixing, she was still recording some stuff. The song just appeared in my email. That was probably the last song that got made, but the beat me and Phoelix made our first week in LA. I probably heard the final version of that the same day you heard it.”

    Cam received a similarly unexpected demo long after he first heard Phoelix and Saba bring the beat to fruition—a process that took just “five or 10 minutes.”

    “Noname ended up writing to it way after they sent it, but when she started writing she wrote it in an instant. She sent me a demo she recorded on her phone, which probably took her 30 minutes. She asked what I thought and obviously it’s amazing! Putting it all together to make it sound how it sounds was definitely a process, but the bare tracks and writing was really fast. Post-production took the longest.”

  • "Forever"

    Producers: Saba and Phoelix
    Featuring: Ravyn Lenae and Joseph Chilliams

    For months, Saba and Phoelix tried and failed to find an artist who woiuld fit on this charming beat that sounded like a choir of music boxes. It was among the first songs to arise from their creative partnership. One night in LA, Noname asked to hear more music. That's where the beat’s journey to Telefone began.

    “I played that beat and I wound up recording her on my laptop,” Phoelix says. “It was exciting to see somebody—and her, out of anyone—rap over that beat because we had it forever.”

    “We initially made that for someone specific, and they turned it down,” Saba admits. “We were trying to get that person’s vision, capture what we think that person sounds good over, but nothing came of it. Noname saw the vision.”

    Even then, however, “Forever” was still just a beat with a rough top-line. Noname would only finish the song two weeks before Telefone’s release, finalizing her lyrics and recording in Chicago as the due date loomed overhead.

    The guest features came together in similar fashion. Joseph Chilliams, Saba’s little brother and a longtime friend of Noname’s, nearly missed his feature opportunity thanks to a series of unfortunate events that ultimately left the siblings without internet at the time the files were needed. Saba had to race to the studio with a flash drive in hand just to give them the verse—standard practice, once upon a time.

    “It was actually crazy how Joseph had to scramble to get that verse on there,” Saba says with a laugh. “When we were in LA, Noname was talking about who she wanted to feature on her project. She said Joseph, so I was super happy.”

    “We couldn’t email the .WAV file,” Chilliams recalls. “Noname was waiting for another rapper who’s way bigger than me and he never got back to her. If he did the verse, I wasn’t going to make it. I was like, ‘Of course, that makes sense,’ but I wanted to do so well that it didn’t matter who else sent a verse. The first time I wrote, I hated it. Next to Noname, people are going to notice if your flow isn’t up to par, so I approached it differently. She asked me on Sunday, I had it that Monday.”

    The first time I wrote, I hated it. Next to Noname, people are going to notice if your flow isn’t up to par, so I approached it differently. - Joseph Chilliams

    Ravyn Lenae, Chicago’s not-so-secret emerging weapon, splits the chorus with Noname, solidifying her place in the scene on the heels of her stellar Moon Shoes EP. “Noname pretty much knew where she wanted to put Ravyn once she finished her verse,” Phoelix says. “Ravyn helped make the vision happen.”

    Saba couldn’t agree more: “She’s probably one of the dopest, if not the dopest, in the city. We follow her, we’re fans. You can’t imagine her NOT being on that song.”

    “She’s a freaking superstar,” L10 enthuses. “And she’s only 17, man. Like, how. She sounds so mature on ‘Forever,’ you’d never think she’s that young.”

    The high school student grew up watching Chance, Saba, Noname, and a number of others make a name for themselves. That a 17-year-old stands as a next-gen artist in a city ruled by twenty-somethings speaks to Chicago’s talent pool.

    “It’s really refreshing to be on a song with the people I’ve looked up to,” she tells us as she finishes prepping for early morning classes. “I’ve been around Noname a few times, and I think we have mutual artistic respect. It’s unsaid, unspoken, but it’s a vibe people give off that makes it feel like a musical family. I felt honored when she asked me, little ol’ me [Laughs]. I wrote the verse the day before the session, it all happened pretty quickly."

  • "Bye Bye Baby"

    Producers: Cam O’bi and Phoelix

    Cam, Phoelix, and Noname raced through the making of “Bye Bye Baby” simply because they could. The trio sat together and worked in sync, steering the song to the finish line together.

    “We made that beat in five or 10 minutes, instantly,” O’bi recalls. “Noname wrote the song as we were making it. From the beat to the lyrics, total, we probably spent an hour. I’ve never worked that fast.”

    “I started playing chords, Cam started playing drums, and it came together right there,” says Phoelix. “The texture of the song, the layers, it blossomed into what it was.”

    For such a quick turnaround, the song delves into some weighty material.

    Noname gracefully wrestles with abortion, a topic rarely broached in hip-hop, by searching for silver linings within a greater sadness and growing wiser as she goes. "Play date up to heaven soon / Soon I will see the King / He reminds me / Some give presents before they're even ready," she sings.

    The song is an exercise in self-preservation, a touching, tragic narrative that doubles as letter of reassurance for an underrepresented perspective bogged down by protests and self-loathing. To some, abortion can feel like the end of the road, and Noname provides a much-needed alternative message.

  • "Shadow Man"

    Producers: Cam O’bi, Phoelix
    Featuring: Saba, Smino, and Phoelix

    While L10 awaited the arrival of Future’s Coloring Book cameo on “Smoke Break” at the Chicago Recording Company, a group of close friends assembled around a projector.

    Cam O’bi, the professor, stood by a makeshift slideshow presentation, leading a class solely attended by star pupils. Smino, theMIND, Noname, Saba, Phoelix, and L10 watched as Telefone's executive producer explained his obsession with the word “nightingale,” clicking through a series of images that captured his vision for what is now “Shadow Man.”

    “Cam is a fucking genius,” theMIND tells us, still impressed. “I remember he got pissed off because the images weren’t moving. He was like, ‘No, no, no! No one look at the screen!’ [Laughs] He brought up a couple words—"nightingale” was one—that he said kept coming to him. I went over in the corner and wrote this chorus. Everyone had moved on then I came back like, ‘Aye, I wrote this chorus if y’all want to hear that shit.’ I played it over the aux and everyone was like, ‘That’s it! That’s the one!’”

    Cam’s original version of the beat sparked a songwriter’s Olympics. Much like theMIND, every artist in the room sensed a special moment and scattered to different corners of the room to write. The session felt like history, a grand meeting of the minds that included most of the Midwest’s musical future. Cam’s mood board set the tone.

    “Cam’s always got the real Jedi way of thinking,” Smino says with a laugh.

    “It wasn’t Smino emailing a verse, theMIND emailing vocals, it was us all there,” Saba says, audibly excited by the memory. Despite years of friendship and collaboration with Noname, “Shadow Man” marks their first time on a released song together. “Cam guided us through the it,” he continues. “All of the writing is inspired by his presentation. And the drum set was there, the pianos were there, everything.”

    Phoelix made good use of the tools at his disposal: “After everyone recorded their verses, me and Cam kept working on the beat. I’m like, ‘Man, we should just go live with this.’ I sat down with the B3 [organ] and grand piano. I had my bass. I had the Rhodes [keys]. We got drummer Ralph Gene in there too.”

    “I met Phoelix for the first time in the session for ‘Shadow Man,’ which is so crazy because we ended up making that together,” Cam says. “That song will forever describe my relationship with Phoelix. Our first time meeting, we made one of my favorite songs I’ve ever made in my life.”

    Telefone embodies moments like these, turning the joy of its creators into joy for the listeners—a true gift that’s built to last.

  • We can't wait to hear Telefone live at Noname's first New York headline show on October 12 at Baby's All Right. She is joined by Kemba, Topaz Jones, and theMIND. Tickets are sold out, but if you already copped, we'll see you there!

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