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A Cousin, a Noname, and the Best Rap Albums of the Year

How do ‘Telefone’ and ‘Monda’ stack up with the year’s best releases?

Noname Facebook/Getty/Ringer Illustration
Noname Facebook/Getty/Ringer Illustration

Noname is not all the way famous yet, so there’s a fair possibility that you do not know her. Here are some facts about Noname:

  • Noname is a rapper.
  • To be clear, though, she’s a rapper the same way that LeBron James is a small forward, in that, yes, technically she is that, but she’s also that in a way that stretches and pulls the borders of what that means.
  • She is from Chicago.
  • She first popped up (at least in my life, anyway) when she left a sparkling verse at the end of Chance the Rapper’s “Lost” in 2013.
  • She has a new tape out.
  • It’s her first tape, actually.
  • It’s called Telefone.
  • And it is fucking gorgeous.

I feel at least a little bit silly trying to tell you what Telefone sounds like, or what it FEELS like, which is more appropriate here. The tape finds Noname wandering around in the afterglow of death — and if that sounds sad or upsetting, I want you to know that it’s neither of those things. In fact, it’s comforting and uplifting. There’s a lightness to the music and the way she flutters across it. And I don’t mean to say that she approaches the seriousness of dying eccentrically or, worse still, dismissively, because she doesn’t. I mean it to say that she discusses death and its aftereffects (and its pre-effects, really) with deftness that only ever makes it feel warm.

She talks about death directly on “Casket Pretty” when she raps, “All of my niggas is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home / I hope to God that my tele’ don’t ring,” and all of a sudden you realize that simple things, or things that you’d never even considered to be threatening or ominous or terrifying, like a phone ringing, can be just that.

And she talks about death indirectly on “Yesterday” when she raps, “My granny almost sparrow / I can see the wings / The choir sings / And la da di la di da da da, dah / Only he can save my soul.” That’s the sort of pacing and writing that pushes the album so high up. When people try to do that sort of thing, it’s easy to just muddy everything up. That doesn’t happen on Telefone, though. There aren’t any wasted sentences or moments or unnecessary tricks or flourishes. There’s a part of “All I Need” in which she takes the words “I’m ballin’” and pulls them and tugs on them until they’ve been turned into a milewide wave and all you can think is, “I don’t know that any rapper right now could’ve created this moment besides her.” It keeps the tape moving forward in the most necessary way.

The two most compelling bits of writing on Telefone do the same sort of thing, except the first one does it in the most overwhelmingly impressive way possible and the second one does so in the most intimate way possible.

The first one happens on “Reality Check,” in which she talks about how she hasn’t been ready to release her tape until right now, but she does so while mushing the idea together with a metaphor until it’s no longer a metaphor. She says: “Opportunity knockin’ / A nigga was out for coffee / Inadequate like my window / The Grammys is way too lofty / And I could stay here forever / I could die here / I don’t have to try here / Can I get my two sugars please? / Jesus made an album / I’m still waiting in the line for cream.”

The second one happens on “Freedom (Interlude),” in which she catches herself in a daydream. She says: “I had a dream I rocked my baby fast asleep / Count the toes / They’re all there / Kiss the cheek / I think this is a song about redemption / Or a mother’s intuition / How my kitchen sounds like church bells.” There’s a whole entire song that appears later on Telefone called “Bye Bye Baby” that talks about an abortion, and it is very tender and massive, but when she talks about motherhood on “Freedom (Interlude),” it caves your chest in.

“Freedom (Interlude)” ends with a clip from an interview Nina Simone did with Peter Rodis. He asks “Well, what’s free to you?” After a few seconds of toying with him, Simone says, “Just a feeling. … It’s just a feeling. It’s like, how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love? How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love how it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things, but you can’t tell. But you know it when it happens.”

That’s why I feel at least a little bit silly trying to tell you what this tape sounds like, or even what it feels like. I can say all of the things. I don’t know that it matters, though. Telefone is an exceptional album. Maybe I could’ve just said that.

The eight best rap albums this year right now are as follows:

  1. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered
  2. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
  3. Noname, Telefone
  4. Schoolboy Q, Blank Face LP
  5. Cousin Stizz, Monda
  6. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
  7. YG, Still Brazy
  8. Young Thug, Slime Season 3

That’s usually the order that they have to be placed in, if you’re going by a combination of critical consensus and broad popularity. But I’m willing to admit that the nature of the relationship between rap music and the emotions that it either elicits or supplements means that this ranking is a little bit fluid, at least among the first four. (When I listen to Noname’s album, I swear it’s the best. When I listen to Schoolboy’s album, I swear it’s the best. And so on.)

Kendrick’s album is no. 1 because Kendrick is no. 1. There’s just nobody better right now at stitching together different sounds and ideas and turning them into one big, bold thing.

Chance used Coloring Book to prove that benevolence makes for good rap music, which is SOMETHING. (He also proved that if you put 2 Chainz on an album that lives mostly as a gospel celebration, 2 Chainz will say church things, yes, but in the most 2 Chainzian way possible, he will rhyme “IKEA” with “diarrhea” and then, “Big yacht, no pies there / Aye, aye, captain / I’m high, captain / I’m so high me and God dappin’.”)

Schoolboy Q layered texture over texture over texture over texture on Blank Face LP and it came out so fucking great. There are so many pivot points and rubber moments that it’s impossible to listen to just one song from it because all the songs are actually two or three or four different songs mushed together, so it’s hard to tell where one ends and one begins, so the album just plays and plays, and before you know it, it’s 80 minutes later and every time someone tries to talk to you all you can think to do is bark back, “Me no conversate with the fake.” Also: When I heard Jadakiss’s verse on “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” while I was driving home from work, I drove my car into the bayou because I thought my body was about to burst into flames.

Kanye West made a living album, which meant that even if there were missteps on it, it was fine because maybe they’d eventually go away, and that’s a super-interesting and innovative way to use the internet.

YG’s Still Brazy is just as lush as 2014’s My Krazy Life, and so of course it has to be included on any best-of list because that’s a thing he does better than just about everybody else.

And Young Thug’s spacey ghost burps on Slime Season 3 made it fantastic (“Drippin’” is as good a Young Thug song as we’ve ever gotten), even though it ends up with people writing things like “spacey ghost burps” when trying to describe him and the sounds he makes when he’s making sounds that eventually become songs.

Those are the eight best rap albums right now. I’m glad that you know that.

Cousin Stizz is not all the way famous yet, so there’s a fair possibility that you do not know him. Here are some facts about Cousin Stizz:

  • Cousin Stizz is a rapper.
  • He is from Boston.
  • He first popped up (at least in my life, anyway) last summer when he released Suffolk County, which ended up being one of the 10 best rap tapes of 2015.
  • He has a new tape out.
  • It’s only his second ever.
  • It’s called Monda.
  • And it’s fucking gorgeous.

Stizz, same as Noname, is captivating, though for entirely different reasons. His music is super hazy. It floats around in the atmosphere when it plays. The songs don’t end — they just sort of evaporate, or disappear, or vanish. It’s so much fun to listen to music like that because so few people can make it. One day I spent, like, 45 minutes while I was listening to Monda reading about clouds in outer space because that’s just what it made me feel like in my heart, and I understand that telling you what a person’s music made me feel like searching for on the internet is a weird way to explain what that person’s music sounds like, but that’s just how it is sometimes. Here’s a song of his:

In an interview with HipHopDX.com, Stizz said he named Monda after a friend of his. The friend, a younger kid Stizz had grown up with, was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of bone cancer. Stizz told everyone that he was going to name the album after him (his actual name was Damone Clark, but his nickname was Monda), but in the interview, he admits, “It took me a while to get brave enough to tell him.” I wonder what that’s like: to have to tell someone you care about a great deal that you’re going to do something in their honor because they are about to die. I remember how it felt to hear my grandmother tell me that she was going to die of cancer. It was devastating. I don’t know what it’d have been like to have to say that back to her, about her.

Stizz is 24 years old. So is Noname. Her tape is all about considering the idea of death, and a death was the impetus for his. I don’t know if it should’ve been obvious that two of the five best rap tapes this year have similar origins, but they do.