"Room 25" firmly establishes Noname as one of the best rappers alive.
A little over a year ago, I saw Noname absolutely kill her set at a summer music festival. Her band was tight, presence charming, and reception surprisingly warm from an audience who didn't seem all that familiar with her. Later that day, Nas performed. As most of the crowd rapped along to "NY State of Mind," I began to overhear a particularly enthusiastic recitation of the hook directly behind me. I turned around, and was face-to-face with Noname and her entire four-piece band, acting like regular-ass people at a festival, dancing and signing and smiling. This wasn't the first artist I'd seen leave the comfort of backstage to mingle with the common folk at a festival— two that stand out off top are Danny Brown walking around and dapping up anyone that approached him, and John C. Reilly watching an indie rock set from a distance— but rather the first who could've passed for your average, fashionable mid-twenties General Admission ticketholder. Onstage and off, Noname looked just as excited to be there as anyone else.
Two full-lengths into her career as a rapper, Noname's strength is blending this approachable, low-key, everywoman vibe with blistering talent. She's hailed as a "savior," a "real lyricist" antidote to vapid content in rap by some fans, but that's 100% editorializing on their part. As her name suggests, Noname's music is egoless, her superiority complex nonexistent despite her spellbinding abilities. As she put it in a recent Fader profile, "A lot of my fans... I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah.”
In that case, Fatimah [Warner, Noname's given name] is "just" a poet-turned-rapper who makes brilliant, relatable, beloved music. Her debut, 2016's Telefone, received warm acclaim for its empathy and lushness, and located the 25-year-old as the Chicago youth-poetry-fed rap scene's next big thing, following the success of friends and frequent collaborators Chance The Rapper, Saba, Mick Jenkins, etc. In the two years since, Noname's moved to L.A., toured relentlessly, lost her virginity, and stayed independent. All of that shows on the transitional, well-oiled, sensual, and uncompromising follow-up, Room 25.
Less hooky and segmented than Telefone, Noname's sophomore effort manages to sound sweeping and expansive while clocking in at only 35 minutes. A good deal of that has to do with Phoelix, the Chicago rapper/producer who did the lion's share of production work on Telefone but assumed full executive duties on Room 25. His style is suave and consistent throughout, his psychedelic, jazzy live instrumentation providing the perfect match for Noname's muted vocal delivery and allowing for a seamless listening experience. Also fattening up the music is an oft-present string section, bankrolled by Noname herself, which lends to the album's cinematic vibe.
Home to Hollywood fame whoring, Beverly Hills fakeness, and Calabasas opulence, L.A. plays a big role on this album. On one hand, its championing of the individual allows Noname to embrace herself more, focusing less on the demons of her past and more on finding herself. On the other, the city yields lyrics about plastic surgery, sex, prescription drugs, and self-involvement. "L.A. be bright but still a dark city," Noname raps on "Prayer Song, "So come get your happy and your new titties." She brings up the aspects of her new home that clash with her down-to-earth personality, but in locating those, she seems to better define who she actually is. Sometimes you have to leave home to find yourself, and on her addition to the continuum of "moving to L.A." albums, Noname seems more comfortable in her own skin.
A major part of that is the sexual awakening she's undergone since Telefone, which she also discussed in the Fader profile. “Maybe this project 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,” she said. Sure enough, she winks about the alleged distance between her squeaky-clean image and newfound horniness all throughout the album. "Yes and yes, I'm problematic too," she raps directly after squeezing "freedom" and "suckin' dick in the new Adidas" into the same line. Most direct and striking in its weighing of sexuality against misogyny is opener "Self," on which Noname acknowledges the tired "money and pussy" cliché pushed by many male rappers while also boasting that her pussy "teaches ninth-grade English" and "wrote an essay on colonialism." You can have it both ways.
While taking more time to feel herself than she did on Telefone, which featured selfless songs about dead friends ("Casket Pretty") and abortion (Bye Bye Baby"), Noname doesn't lose her far-reaching critical focus on Room 25. "Blaxploitation" really is, as she puts it, "a thinkpiece in a rap song," covering an unbelievable amount of ground about the African American experience in just over two minutes. The following track, "Prayer Song," presents a more realistic imagining of the American Dream— one where obesity, heart disease, and "darkness linger[ing] in the wake of slavery" are just as American as apple pie. Add those to the aforementioned exploration of L.A.'s character, as well as Noname's ever-present meditations on mortality, and these 35 minutes almost certainly have more going on lyrically than your favorite rapper's longest album.
With Room 25, Noname firmly establishes herself as one of the best rappers alive. She's able to pack entire worlds of thought-provoking content into brief songs that demand repeat listens to fully grasp, all while never distracting from the lush music she favors and seeming like an "Aw, shucks" Average Jane. Sometimes, you want to tap her on the shoulder and say, "You do know you can conquer the world with this talent, right?"