Noname is an American rapper and poet from Chicago, Illinois. She’s a darling of the indie hip-hop world, but she is perhaps best known to the general public for her work with fellow Chicago native, Chance the Rapper, featuring on both Acid Rap and Coloringbook as well as an appearance on the Merry Christmas Lil’ Mamma mixtape. She’s known for her flow which is fast and dense, yet quiet and understated. Her lyrics are thoughtful and poetic, focussing heavily on issues of race, gender, and love.
Her own personal debut came in 2016 when she self released her own mixtape, Telefone. The project received universally positive reviews from critics and fans alike, landing on several end of the year lists and rocketing Noname into the national conversation as a key pillar of the new Chicago sound. With the release of her first true LP, Room 25, she is faced with the task of living up to expectations, while trying to top one of the best records of 2016. This is a task which she knocks out of the park.
The album opens with a short, simplistic intro in “Self,” which sets a clear tone for the rest of the 35 minute runtime. In the track, she speaks to the purpose of this album, a few situations where she feels it may be appropriate, and spends the rest of the 90 second track touching on race, love, politics, religion, and gender, all in a couple verses. It’s an excellent intro, and it sets listeners into the mood right away.
Easily the highlight of this album is Noname’s flow, which shines even more on this album than in past work. “Prayer Song,” and “Window,” run back to back, and show her abilities quite well. In them, she shows an interesting tendency to repeat a word at the end of a line to set her structure, and then packing her verses full of internal rhymes that play well off of the complex, jazz rhythms in the background. It’s a unique tendency that sets her apart from the growing wave of jazz-rap artists, especially coming from Chicago.
Her lyricism, as well, is impressively fearless for such a young artist, especially dealing in interesting topics. “Blaxploitation,” for example, speaks on African American representation in media over the years and uses this as a prism to deal with gentrification and racism. “Regal,” on the other hand, focuses on the poisons of black and white, two-sided politics and its tendency to force adherents to defend beliefs which they don’t hold. Each track is a puzzle with multiple levels layered on top of one another.
Instrumentally, most tracks are simplistic, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for unimpressive. The bass guitar work on “Don’t Forget About Me,” is excellent and melodic, the lead guitar on “With You,” is the best part of an already awesome track, and the drums throughout are complex and driving, accenting Noname’s vocals perfectly.
The feature list isn’t quite star studded, but it manages, for the most part, to add something much needed. Raven Lynae’s vocals on “Montego Bay,” is one of the best parts of the song and the largest cast of voices on “Part of Me,” is much appreciated. If I had a complaint in this department, it would be Smino’s verses on “Ace,” which is the weakest track in the list and isn’t helped by his underwhelming performance.
The best song, by far, on Room 25 is the closer, “no name.” This track is just beautiful. An excellent, extended intro that features a very listenable bass line, followed by Noname’s performance of one of the best verses on the album, and finished by a soulful outro from Yaw and Adam Ness. It’s one of the best rap songs of the year, and an example of what makes the jazz rap movement the most exciting in the genre.
While I loved the experience, I certainly had a few complaints. The album lacks sonic diversity in many places, and as a result the pacing really suffers. A 35 minute runtime should feel like a breeze, but on Room 25, its a bit of a slog, if an enjoyable one. The feature list, while admirable, could certainly have been better. Noname has worked with the likes of Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, and Taylor Bennet, any of whom would’ve fit really well on this album and given a unique sound which may be missing from the finished product. Regardless, Room 25 is one of the best albums of the year as it’s predecessor was in 2016.
Noname’s flow and lyricism land her in the top tier of modern rappers and when she’s given such impressive instrumentals, helmed masterfully by Chicago producer L10MIXEDIT, she shines brighter than almost any of her contemporaries.
HEAR ROOM 25: https://open.spotify.com/album/7oHM3Sj0l2nXAzGAxW0KOt