We’re listening to Chicago rapper Noname’s debut studio album “Room 25,” a shimmering fusion of introspective wordplay and ethereal jazz.
Noname’s first mixtape “Telefone” was one of 2016’s standout releases, a nostalgic meditation on childhood and loss. Soft, warm, and full of wonder, it received immediate critical acclaim and elevated Noname from an occasional guest verse assassin to a new level of professional musicianship. This September, the artist born Fatimah Warner returned in glorious fashion with “Room 25.”
On it, seemingly scattershot examinations of Noname’s ever-changing self and surroundings show her striving for happiness in a world where there are infinite reasons to be angry, sad, or both.
The album opens on an empowering note with “Self,” a 90-second victory lap around everybody who tried to decry her talent or reduce her worth. “Ya’ll really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that,” she sneers playfully, smiling through her words. Later, she steps into cocky territory, claiming, “’Room 25’ the best album that’s coming out.” She is more confident and knows herself better than ever, and her writing throughout the project is more tactful and precise because of it.
Noname raps in a frenetic spoken word, often leaping from one non-sequitor to another and back again in the same bar. Room 25 doubles down on these dazzling, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it streams of consciousness. On posse cut “Ace,” she darts and skips: “Globalization scary and fucking is fantastic and frankly I find it funny that Morgan is still acting.”
To say so much with only 18 words is masterful, the type of brevity writers spend careers working towards. The alliteration is just a cherry.
Her cascading run-on flows, hushed delivery, and polysyllabic rhyme schemes are pushed to their brink by executive producer Phoelix’s floaty jazz (or are they neo-soul? Or R&B?) instrumentals. Live drums by Luke Sangerman encourage Noname to tapdance in and out of staggered pockets at will. Swooning string arrangements by Matt Jones and twangy guitar riffs by Brian Sangborn provide intros, outros, and most importantly atmosphere—melancholy and heartbreak on “With You,” nervous excitement on “Window.”
“Room 25” is the most personal music Noname has ever made. No longer does she posture herself as the voice of her largely silenced community as she did throughout “Telefone.” “Room 25” is made for her, about her. Even so, she distorts her memoirs with metaphors and linguistic tricks slow to sink beneath the skin, demanding that listeners work to understand her.
Most notably, Noname raps about an intense romance, her first, that went sour. “Window” sees her venting, working through this “empty” relationship to herself.
The velvety “Montego Bae” celebrates the joys of flirting and sex over seductive background vocals with a feathery feature from fellow Chicagoan Ravyn Lenae. “With You” conveys the disappointment and isolation of love lost. She also touches on the weirdness of her bubbling celebrity (her family expects wealth she doesn’t have) and the fragility of her existence on the harrowing “Don’t Forget About Me,” (“If I have to go I hope my soul is still eternal.”)
Despite the record’s brief runtime, the self-examination doesn’t limit Noname’s engagement with her country’s rampant and rabid social injustices. She makes music with a message, albeit a varied one sometimes. On “Blaxploitation” she slams Pine-Sol and Hillary Clinton for abusing Black stereotypes to get sales and votes. The devastating second verse on “Prayer Song” is written in the perspective of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black parent in front of their son. “They ain’t tell me how to cry, just shoot, I did / they only taught me how to check her pulse, she dead.” Your chest tightens in sorrow—yet another innocent child doomed to grow up motherless. It is a condemnation not just of the individual behind the badge, but the entire system that shaped him.
Noname’s commentary is razor-edged and never shallow. It’s always rooted in her own experiences and observations, sometimes even tinged with guilt that she herself fails to live up to her own expectations. She’s ashamed of her queerphobic Chick-Fil-A dinner but explains that “bitches just really lazy.” She “almost passed out drinking” while contemplating death on “Don’t Forget About Me.” On “Montego Bae,” she croons, “And yes, and yes, I’m problematic too.” To be human is to be messy and imperfect—plus Chick-Fil-A’s waffle fries are too damn tasty.
Her mind may be overflowing with Earthly troubles, but Noname always circles back to the looming finality of this life, the fact that time stops for no woman and death doesn’t care about her problems. That’s a lot of weight for a young mind to bear. But even facing the darkest mystery, Noname’s faith persists. Her final utterance on “Room 25” is pure hope:
“When we walk into heaven nobody’s name gon’ exist / just boundless movement for joy, nakedness, radiance.”
Buy tickets to see Noname perform Room 25 and more at The Wiltern in Hollywood on February 21, 2019.
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