Despite her stage name, Noname, 27–year–old Fatimah Warner is anyone but someone you should ignore. Rather, her stage name identifies her as a rejection of mass–produced modern hip–hop—Noname is one of the few rappers releasing music independently, bound to no contract or label. Growing up in Chicago, her rap is rooted in the city’s slam poetry and open mic scene which dominated her childhood. Noname has cemented herself as a rapper who weaves together jazz and neo–soul beats with an elaborately rhymed flow after being featured on a song from her hometown friend Chance the Rapper’s mixtape, Acid Rap, as well as the release of her own successful mixtape Both mixtapes received rave reviews from magazines like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
While most modern hip–hop is marked by minimalism and repetition, on Room 25, Noname isn’t afraid to craft her songs with generosity, resulting in the best project in her career so far. She raps in sentences, long, poetic and fast, flitting from word to word. Her voice isn’t abrasive—in fact, she raps like she’s talking, sometimes lazily whispering—but she commands the listener’s attention with quiet confidence. Polyrhythms abound as jazzy, uniquely timed drumbeats from a live band fill up the space beneath her with atmospheric R&B. Room 25’s strength lies in its personal nature. A tight, 11–track story, it’s an open book of Noname’s last two years: her move from Chicago to L.A., the relationship in which she lost her virginity, her hotel–room lifestyle referenced by the album title, her commentary on sociopolitical issues. Marking a break from Telefone, Room 25 is more daring, sexual, and even comedic. Noname explains this change by saying
Noname explores a variety of identities on Room 25. The opening track “Self” is rhapsodic, existential, and filled with subtle swagger as she delivers her personal perspectives on her success, politics, and those who doubted her (“And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?”). Her political identity is in center stage in “Blaxploitation” and “Prayer Song,” songs where Noname snappily tackles systemic racism (I'm struggling to simmer down, maybe I'm an insomni–black / Bad sleep triggered by bad government”), L.A. gentrification, religion, and capitalism over movie sound–bites on the black identity, funky bass lines, and dreamlike instrumentation. She opens up on “Don’t Forget About Me,” when she slowly and melodically reflects on how she hopes her life changes won’t affect her relationships with her loved ones.
The second half of the album continues the first half’s innovation. “Montego Bae,” featuring Ravyn Lenae, is a highlight. The two playfully sing and rap about a new love of Noname’s over an Esperanza Spalding–esque instrumental The New York Times called Another highlight is “Ace,” featuring Smino and Saba, where Noname spits out put–downs of other rappers and public figures. On the penultimate track “With You,” Noname raps over wistful acoustic guitar and atmospheric vocals about her struggles in making music about her own experience that is consumed by others (“All my everythings for sale / All my secondhand discoveries, Dungarees faded pale”). Finally, “No Name” delves into why Fatimah Warner chose to reject labels and identify herself as Noname. A memorable line is “When labels ask me to sign, say my name don’t exist, so many names don’t exist”—a line referring to her independent status and the #SayHerName movement associated with raising awareness of police brutality against black women.
Room 25 is a groundbreaking album because it refuses to bind itself to an established identity–whether that means its genre–blending sonical attributes, its unique live production method in a world of electronically–produced 808 drumbeats, the varying situations the lyrics explore, its short tracklist when most rap albums now stretch to over 20 songs–the list goes on and on. Noname has shown us she’s come into her own, and is taking not just rap, but music, to new places. Room 25 is a confident declaration that from now on, you better know Noname’s name.