If you often find yourself in what a friend of mine would call your “bag of feelings” — in other words, if you find yourself in the mood for some casual, existential contemplation, Fatimah Warner might be exactly who you need. The 27-year old Chicago rapper, better known as Noname, recently released her highly anticipated album, “Room 25,” which can best be described as music to think to. She treats “Room 25” as a space for reflection, inviting listeners to peer into her internal musings and uncertainties as they wrestle with their own.
“Maybe this the album you listen to in your car / When you driving home late at night / Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches,” she suggests openly on the first track, “Self,” her tone conversational and sincere, soft yet commanding. Noname’s tendency towards late-night mental wanderings is not the product of mere purposeless angst; rather, her introspection has brought her music to a place of newfound self-awareness and comfortable self-assuredness.
This unshakable sense of confidence and independence as a woman and artist is actually new for Noname. Her previous album, “Telefone,” is a delicate, weary and somber collection of “lullaby-raps,” each song a phone message to someone in her life. Whereas “Telefone” was an attempt to hold onto hope amidst pain and unrest, “Room 25” is a coming-of-age narrative about a pivotal period in Noname’s life. The title refers to the age at which Noname moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and entered her first relationship, which was short-lived but intense. With her characteristically nimble and poetic lyricism, Noname explores the themes of religion, racism, gentrification, personal transformation, unfulfilling relationships and her own sexual awakening. The album finds it strength in its dynamism: Noname’s verses are often quiet, poignant and heartbreaking, yet at other times, are sharp, vibrant and laugh-out-loud funny. Each song is constructed with meticulous attention to detail and laced with artful subtleties which are discoverable only after several listens. These minutiae are highlighted in her unconventional production, which features lush jazz instrumentals and African drum patterns. The allusions to neo-soul music pay tribute to Noname’s artistic inspirations, even as the album sounds innovative and modern.
Before plunging into introspection, Noname turns her focus outwards to reflect on the world around her, providing evocative social and political commentary on “Blaxploitation” and “Prayer Song.” The former is a sharp, jazzy track which features a discussion of the anxiety-caused issues of social injustice and the exploitation of the Black identity. With dexterous wordplay, Noname articulates her experience of feeling constantly on edge because of the current state of the political system and adds new meaning to the concept of “staying woke”: “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black / Bad sleep triggered by bad government.” Her whip-smart observations are set against a funky bassline that sounds like it is straight from a blaxploitation movie. Following this colorful burst of expression is a period of silence. Then, a beat that sounds like crickets or creatures of the night emerges. Noname’s vocal tone is darker, taking on a mysterious quality, like a prophet releasing an ominous, apocalyptic vision. The unconventional production of “Prayer Song” creates a dark, dismal landscape into which Noname confesses how she is troubled by the moral depravity of America: the misguided value system of capitalism, police brutality and the decline of religion.
Noname is a thoughtful observer of the complexities of her interior life as well as the world around her, and as the album progresses, she becomes increasingly confessional. This shift is accompanied by the dramatic, sighing strings arrangement at the opening of “Window,” which add a cinematic quality to the highly personal narrative she shares. The song expresses the magnitude of the emotional impact of a relationship on her self-worth. In the hook, she explains the song is not actually about the man she loved but rather about what she learned from his mistreatment, referencing Lauryn Hill with the line “everything is everything,” the title of her song about eradicating self-doubt. These words are a mantra from Noname’s childhood; she’s referenced this line in the nostalgia-steeped lyrics of “Telephone” and even used the phrase as the name of her very first tour. In “Window” and other emotionally vulnerable tracks, Noname’s background in the Chicago spoken-word poetry scene is especially noticeable. You can hear her education in poetry in her intonation, the way her voice flutters through each verse, emphasizing unexpected syllables in her carefully-arranged words. Listening to the elegant lyricism of “With You,” I am reminded of the words of Toni Morrison, whom Noname has mentioned as a foundational influence: “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.” Noname’s words, standing out against the surrounding tumbling, silky-smooth guitar track, most definitely send up smoke.
As the album draws to a close, Noname lets the music take over for a minute-long interlude, which, on such a lyrically dense album, is especially striking. She lets the audience indulge in the album’s powerful melodies. The self-titled concluding track gives “Room 25” satisfying thematic resolution, explaining the origin of the artist’s sense of identity: “No name for people to call me small or colonize, optimism / No name for inmate registries if they put me in prison.” Noname reveals that her choice of stage name does not reflect self-erasure but rather self-ownership, taking away the power of others to define or mistreat her. She looks back without regret on a year of losing, redefining and eventually realizing her identity, content with the knowledge that her only worldly possession is herself.
Contact Caroline Hallee at challee ‘at’ stanford.edu.