“We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live”–Joan Didion
Right now in hip-hop, there is truly no one rapping like Noname. She is not “the anti-Cardi B”. She is not, nor has she ever been, “the female Chance”. Born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, the Chicago-native exists in a lane of her own making. She came into the public eye by way of featuring alongside Chicago contemporaries such as Mick Jenkins and Chance the Rapper. While battling her own demons (depression and alcohol) held back the long-awaited debut, in 2016 Telefone emerged into the world and fans embraced this new, vibrant voice in hip-hop. From Telefone to now, Noname has pulled back her layers and revealed so much more. If Telefone was a delicate conversation in the quiet, tender hours, Room 25 is her pulling back the night’s curtain, letting the sun in, inviting everyone to bare witness.
She stakes her claims from the start with “Self”, a soothing, light-hearted, yet sharp-tongued meditation towards those who believe they believe they have Noname all figured out: “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”. While she boldly addresses those who fail to box her with labels, she reminds all of us: she does all this for herself. In “Self”, Noname is sexy, flirty, and audacious in a way we’ve never seen her before. She enjoys what her body is capable of: “My pussy teachin ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism”. Here the Chicago-native subverts the ways in which the feminine body is often portrayed in hip-hop: “I know niggas only talk about money and good pussy”. She claims her pussy and its powers so no one else can. She is irreverent, disarming, and it feels like we’re being reintroduced to the Noname she took the years in between albums to cultivate.
In “Window”, much like the title of the song, Noname is wide open from her adventures in love and sex. Self-love, romantic-love, love as forgiveness, and more are translated into a delicate background of xylophone, and hi-hats. In her interview with The Fader, Noname is very candid about coming into her sexuality and the heartbreak that came with it: “My only reason for not having sex was purely insecurity, purely like, I’m too afraid to be naked in front of somebody. A lot of people feel like that but the horniness trumps it, the horniness is slightly more than the insecurity”. Though the four-month relationship came to a crashing end, Noname emerged with a mature sense of self-love and how humans love one another: “And all you got was me-me-me / But I love you even though we’re not meant to be, I still love you / I hope you find everything that you want, and she loves you / Everything is everything just know that I love you”.
Along with her budding sexuality, stepping into darling self-affirmation married to a smooth, sweeping crescendos of sound, she leads us into “Don’t Forget About Me”, a song in which Noname confront her mortality, a theme often visited on Telefone, except this time she is more at peace her sense of fragility, and therein lies her strength: even with mortality a horizon that stretches as far her eye can see, she just wants to be remembered–like any of us would. We want to believe our labor in this world will immortalize us. Death does not kill us, but being forgotten does: “I know everyone goes some day / I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay / But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal”.
In this album, Noname experimented and found her secret weapon in a full-live band, which she admits blew through her self-funded budget: “Man, that shit is fucking expensive as hell. Someone has to arrange all the parts and then you have to then hire, like, 12 people, this big-ass orchestral thing,” she says. “[I paid for] the whole album, everything, myself. And I was like, Do I want to spend this much money on something that’s so minimal?” As minimal as the rapper claims it was, it lifted Room 25 into a simple heaven. Orchestra-driven tracks such as “Montego Bay” are a melodic, quick-paced, lush tapestry of dreams. Scat singing in the background, Noname raps, and with ease, keeps up with the jazz.
Notable features such as Ravyn Lenae on “Montego Bay”, Smino & Saba on “Ace”, Adam Ness on “no name” attribute to Noname hometown, yet larger-than-life music. These features are humbling because Noname looks towards home for those to help her sing her truest songs. Ravyn Lenae’s vocals romance us on “Montego Bay” much the way she did on “Forever”. Smino and Saba double-dutch a skittering of rhymes on “Ace”, while Adam Ness brings us home on “no name”
The final track on “Room 25” is a song of victory, of ascension. More than a resolution, Noname’s refusal to be attached to names and labels (“because when we walk into heaven / no one’s name gonna exist”) is further synonyms with her outlook on mortality: “Only worldly possession I have is life”. It’s never safe to assume anything about a rapper like Noname, a rapper who crafted a persona piece about being a woman who lost a baby, but one can deduce age 25 was a critical age for this rapper. Maybe the room, then, is the space of her life and how this album is a timestamp of that. There isn’t a skippable track on “Room 25”; what Noname has created here is a dense menagerie of sound that is calming and feels like a slice of home. Where Telefone often was an album of loss and mourning, Room 25 is an uplifting gesture of gratitude and reverence for life. Noname’s patience and deliberate execution is what will ensure she maintains a long and successful career. In the age of mass-production, Noname moves at her own pace. She will be heard when she is ready and you will say ‘thank you’. Noname is exactly what hip-hop needs right now.
I.S. Jones is the Managing Editor of Dead End Hip-Hop. You can tweet at her here