Noname Room 25

[Self-Released; 2018]

Styles: hip-hop, jazz rap, soul
Others: Kendrick Lamar, Ms. Lauryn Hill

“Um, hello everybody. I’m Noname,” Fatimah Warner softly announces over rapturous applause after the first song of her 2017 Tiny Desk Concert. “I’ve watched so many of these, so I’m like, ‘Man, I just wanna be as good as T-Pain,’” she giggles before graciously introducing her backing band. The Chicago rapper Noname is modesty incarnate. After quietly releasing her debut mixtape Telefone in the summer of 2016 to widespread acclaim, Noname kept a relatively low profile, working on a handful of collaborations that year without any hint of a debut studio album to come. But though she lay low in the studio, Warner embarked on a tour that legitimized her career. Instead of the paltry sums she would typically receive for contributing a feature to another artist’s work, Noname was now seeing a newfound windfall that allowed her to emigrate from Chicago to the West Coast and focus on a music career without the fear of destitution. Yet in spite of her financial and artistic success, Warner remains humble, and on Room 25, the rapper’s full-length debut, she finds humility in introspection and explores her identity unencumbered by the compulsion of politics.

The title Room 25 is part allusion to the string of hotel rooms she occupied during her tour for Telefone. The hotel room, after seeing enough of them in a short stretch of time, becomes a thing of monotony and near-imperceptible change. Those rooms are more or less identical, save for the number on the door. This is the subtext of 25: personal growth is indistinguishable in the short term — it takes a long view to parse any substantive development. So Noname’s triumphs tend to consist of small victories instead of sweeping ones. On “Window,” she recognizes the ennui of an old flame: “Everything we was was empty/ Empty fucking, cussing, I know I’m your bitch/ But you’re my bitch too.” It’s a bittersweet feeling she’s describing, solidified in the ironic opening line “Me so happy now, me so Mississippi,” but it’s also a measure of maturity that she can concede a toxic relationship, even if she undercuts herself with the song’s concluding line: “Everything is everything, just know that I love you.”

Part of Room 25’s introspective mood comes courtesy of producer Phoelix, Noname’s aide de camp with whom she collaborated on Telefone. His beats are busy and nuanced, stunning and occasionally relaxed. On tracks like “Blaxploitation,” his hyperkinetic jazz instrumental crackles against Warner’s dizzying flow. The dreaminess of “Regal” lies in his sumptuous backing track. In Phoelix, Noname has found a partner willing to push her and to be pushed back against.

Jazz-inflected hip-hop is saddled with the unfortunate burden of implied social responsibility. It seemingly demands intellect and deliberation; it requires that its subjects become a kind of preacher, waxing socially astute and morally superior while acknowledging their humble place at the grand intersection of two of Black America’s most enduring art forms. And as the legacies of Golden Age artists like Tribe and Digable Planets grow manifold with each passing year, the bar raises for contemporary artists to reach that same level of social consciousness.

But 25 doesn’t seem all that concerned with meeting or surpassing its forebears; it’s a decidedly more personal album than political. Most of the social grousing is short-lived and serves to play into Noname’s own personal narrative. There’s the rapid-fire contemplation of immature mumble rap, globalization, and Morgan Freeman’s impervious career on “Ace” that quickly turns its focus back toward Warner not two lines later. On “Regal,” Twitter sensationalism and gun control policy are sandwiched between choruses supplicating for her spiritual exaltation and atonement. And on the album opener “Self,” she teases political furor, referencing Reagan and the 80s crack epidemic only to shrug it off: “Nah, actually this [album] is for me.” In this line is Room’s thesis; no matter the political climate, this is an album about the interiority of its artist above all else.

That’s not to say that the record isn’t invested in maintaining social awareness, however. This is perhaps most prominent in “Blaxploitation.” In the song, Noname ponders feminism, black authenticity, and white complacence and condescension, rapping with staccato precision and resolved calculation over an equally intricate jazz funk instrumental. Warner’s verse finishes with a moment of optimism: “Who wrote the movie Coming to America? It’s still coming soon,” while the song itself ends with a monologue from the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The excerpt finds its African-American monologist anticipating his own demise in the form of white violence: “I was born black, I live black, and I’ma die probably because I’m black!” It serves as a reminder of the alarming frequency of black pride being misconstrued as hubris and the danger of white anxieties in America.

At 35 minutes, Room 25 is more of a mission statement than a treatise on Noname’s self-examination. Its 11 songs leave us wanting more. But brevity is one of her greatest assets on the album; as a snapshot of Fatimah Warner’s artistic individuality, Room accomplishes everything it needs to, allowing Warner to say her piece without stumbling into indulgence or, worse yet, running out of subjects to rap about. Nevertheless, the unanimous acclaim the record has seen so far seems to be an indication of Noname’s ability to spark an astoundingly disproportionate response to her humble offering here. It is, to borrow a couple of lines from “Don’t Forget about Me,” the eternal soul transcending Warner’s fragile body made of clay.

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