The young Chicago wordsmith is back.
In 2016, Chicago rapper Noname released her debut mixtape Telefone. Filled with thoughtful lyrics and amiable poetry, she captured the attention of the masses, and Telefone was heralded as a masterwork in a year that saw the release of many other highly acclaimed albums from the likes of Beyoncé, Solange, Frank Ocean, and fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper.
Noname, whose real name is Fatimah Warner, has kept a very low profile since her debut, as is typical of her personality. But she has finally returned, two years later, with her long-awaited sophomore effort: a continuation of the heartfelt poetry that so many have come to appreciate.
Telefone‘s earnest commentary and pleasant vibe greeted our ears and warmly ushered us into her world. It was a change of pace in what many people recognize as a saturated hip-hop landscape, where the music is often ostentatious and over-engineered. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with that type of music, Noname’s brand was undoubtedly a breath of fresh air. Perhaps that was the reason Room 25 was one of this year’s most anticipated releases.
Upon first listen, I immediately took notice of just how much more lively and organic the production of this album is; compared to the lovely, warm instrumentation of Telefone, it seems that on Room 25 the soundscape is even balmier and more natural. In a profile with The FADER, Noname stated, “I just prefer live music. I think my voice sounds better on live production because a lot of the times I’m talking when I’m recording. [My style] is very monotone and quiet. Live instruments give me more space.” Which is a perfect explanation, because upon further contemplation, I can’t really think of any other musical backdrop that would cater to her gentle, poetical flow.
The funky baseline and stiff percussion of “Blaxploitation,” which sounds exactly like it was taken straight out of a ’70s blaxploitation film; the muffled vibraphone and gentle string section arrangement of “Window”; the ethereal, blissful notes of “Regal”; the jazzy beatbreak of “Monego Bae”; the colorful guitar riffs on “With You” … the production all across Room 25, courtesy of fellow Chicago artist and frequent collaborator Phoelix, is lavish, charming, and provides the perfect atmosphere for Noname to wax poetic.
And wax poetic, she certainly does. As the her serene voice caresses the listeners’ ears, Noname takes listeners on a journey through the past couple years — a sort of “coming-of-age” period in the rapper’s life.
Due to the success of 2016, Noname’s profile has elevated, and with it came a slight breath of confidence one doesn’t typically associate with her character. On “Ace,” Noname raps, “Smino Grigio, Noname, and Saba the best rappers / And radio niggas sound like they wearing adult diapers.” There are many (including me) who, over the past two years, have projected the title of “Best Rapper” onto Noname; it seems that perhaps the soft-spoken, reserved poet from Chicago is beginning to embrace her preeminence. She’s more pompous, but in the least overbearing of ways. And before she is interrupted by Saba’s lyrical barrage, she claims, “Room 25, the best album that’s coming out,” as if to further solidify this newfound boldness.
On Room 25, Noname also explores the topic of her sexuality more than she ever has, due mostly to the fact that she only recently experienced her first intimate relationship — a courtship whose dissolution left Fatimah “devastated,” according to the aforementioned FADER profile. When she’s not being quippish about the subject, like on the opening track “Self” (“My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism”), she is very solemn, like in the song “Window” where Noname delves into the convoluted web of emotions that came with her “empty” first relationship. Noname says, “I knew you never loved me but I fucked you anyway.” The listener can hear in the tone of her voice that the failure and emptiness of her first real relationship is indeed heart-wrenching for her.
Another recurring theme on Room 25 is the salvific power of music, and in particular, Noname’s music. On “Self” she posits that the real purpose of her music — as opposed to providing answers to society’s theological or political questions — is for her own healing (“Nah, actually this is for me”). Upon further listening, it becomes clear: on “Don’t Forget About Me,” as if whispering to the audience, Noname claims that she, like the people who find healing from her music, is a “broken” person and hints at a battle with pills and alcohol — a battle she’s admitted she has fought in the past and whose demons still haunt her. In this way, Room 25, like Telefone, is Noname’s “taste of redemption,” as she describes it on “With You.”
Noname has never really had a problem being a conscious or political voice; anyone familiar with her catalog knows this (e.g. “Casket Pretty”). However, she is actively trying to distance herself from the “conscious” archetype, as she says in her FADER interview: “Maybe [Room 25] will show some of those people who think that I am this very, like, conscious female rapper that I’m just as regular and normal as everybody.” Nevertheless, Noname does don her conscious cape for the song “Prayer Song,” in which she appears to speak from the perspective of a crooked cop, who is cognizant but apathetic to how the American justice system profits off of incarceration and brutality. It’s one of Room 25‘s rare yet profound political moments, coupled with “Blaxploitation,” in which Noname deconstructs the song’s title into its root words — black exploitation — and discusses the various ways Black culture in America is abused. Despite the fact that her music is mostly introspective and inward-searching, these moments show that she remains well aware of the ails of the world around her.
The beauty of great poetry is often in its layers and complexity; Room 25 abounds with texture and intricacy, making it one of the year’s most beautiful albums.