Noname‘s debut album Room 25, is a gentle reminder that we do not pick our battles but, rather, we choose which ones to heal from. As Audre Lorde once wrote, “A choice of pains. That’s what living was all about,” and interestingly, the pains the Chicago emcee chooses to dwell on hallmark her sexual awakening. Ultimately, it’s a sizzling narrative of love, loss, and acceptance.
The coming-of-age angst we found on 2016’s Telefone, has matured, as the 26-year-old embraces agency over her voice, lyrical prowess, and womanhood. Following the success of her mixtape, she packed up shop and moved to Inglewood, California. In a short time frame, she started and ended a four-month relationship, had sex for the first time, and began to buckle down for the second chapter of her life. In that regard, Room 25 is just as much about her agency as it is her urgency.
The record’s opening track “Self” lulls listeners into a false safe haven. “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night,” is later redacted by, “Nah, this is actually for me.” In between which, she jeers at her doubters, saying, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” Phoelix’s hazy jazz production is tightened by Noname’s quick-witted bars as she reflects on the short-lived romance, “Fucked your rapper homie, now his ass is making better music.”
She keeps this bravado up throughout the record but is often shadowed by an overt shyness, as if she can’t quite admit to her own excellence. This dichotomy is addressed on the next track, “Blaxploitation,” examining the ’70s cinematic subgenre and its impact on the collective black consciousness. Arguably, the song picks up where Childish Gambino’s “This is America” left off; dissecting the border between white and black America.
“I’m struggling to simmer down/ maybe I’m an insomni-black/ Bad sleep triggered by bad government,” she sings. Her fear is mirrored by a sample from the 1973 crime-drama The Spook Who Sat by the Door: “I was born black/ I live black/ and I’ma die probably because I’m black.” Given that her native Chicago saw a reported 408 homicides in 2018, acknowledgment of her apprehensions and the decision to leave is essential for the listening experience.
“I’d been wanting to move for a long time,” she told Rolling Stone. “I was financially stable; I was able to finally move out of Chicago.” Yet, as with any major change, life gets in the way, and Noname’s frustration is somewhat reflected by a subtly tipsy hi-hat and tickling bass line that rumbles from start to end of the record. Continuity is clearly key for Noname, and for her debut record, she lovingly calls upon her Telefone collaborators Phoelix, Smino, Saba, and Ravyn Lenae.
The familiar and welcoming sounds of Chicago make the vapid world of the West Coast where you “come get your happy and your new titties” almost benign. Noname trusts her associates with her pain, and in that vulnerability, finds a space in which she can breathe a sigh of relief. We hear this on “Prayer Song,” a lyrical masterpiece that leaves us in no doubt of her genius status.
Having made her start with the spoken word scene in Chicago — coincidently where she met Chance the Rapper — listeners really get a gist of how audacious she is: “I seen a cell phone on the dash/ could’ve sworn it’s a gun/ I ain’t see a toddler in the back after firing seven shots.” The visuals of Philando Castile’s death at the hands of a white police officer replay in mind, and in her attempt to process it begins to compare sex with violence.
While it would be easy to reduce this comparison to sentiments of anger, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. It’s more than rage, in fact; it’s grief, passion, and confusion regarding how best to channel her womanhood. To a certain degree, Noname’s sexual awakening is marred by her political circumstances. The grey area in between allows her to be selfish, as we hear on the drum-led “Window” and “Don’t’ Forget About Me.” She chimes in with “I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway,” and this admission tells us that she’s owning her choices.
Standout track “Montego Bae” featuring Ravyn Lenae provides a much-needed break from the airy, jazz productions that have come prior. The harmony between the two artists should not go uncredited, nor should Phoelix’s effortless mastering of bossa nova-inspired sounds. Noname gushes over a romantic love: “Oh sweet bae holy sun/ Oh future husband/ Undress me under the moon/ Sweet bae someday will come soon,” and in doing so, positively glows.
The same can be said for the Smino and Saba-assisted “Ace” which is possibly the G.O.A.T trio of our time: “Smino Grigi, Noname, and Saba the best rappers.” From Jamaica, we travel to London’s Ace Hotel, and its here her happy-go-lucky spirit shines, expressed as part of a stream of conscious flow. She’s sharp and goes for a lighthearted quip at the end of her verse: “I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out/ Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out.”
On “With You,” the rapper comes to terms with her journey, rapping, “shared my life on Telefone, Room 25 at 306, and 809 became my home.” While her journey was surely long, her only disservice to said passage it that this song is too short. Upon reflection, the song would best function as an a capella. That said, the album is rounded off with a complete offering of who she is, “No name.”
It’s a brave song and, ironically, ends where she begins, herself. Again, she teeters on the boundaries of spoken word and rap, appearing more forthright on this record. “Only worldly possession I have is life/ Only room that I died in was 25.” It’s self-affirming, a cycle of birth and death and all that she is in between. In this case, she is love, loss, friendship, compassionate, and shy. The deal breaker is whether or not the listener can embrace this Noname, the one Fatimah Warner finds much comfort in.