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Noname - Room 25 Music Album Reviews

The Chicago rapper’s second album is a transcendent coming-of-age tale built around cosmic jazz and neo-soul, delivered by a woman deeply invested in her interiority and that of the world around her.

If Noname’s 2016 debut Telefone was the musings of a young woman trying to write her way into a sense of place and self, then Room 25 is the blazing soliloquy that spills out after putting the pen down to live a life. Almost immediately, we’re met with one of the greatest lines of the year: “My pussy teachin’ ninth-grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.” It goes on, a modern coming-of-age tale, the now 27-year-old rapper examining her triumphs and shortcomings with sharp commentary. Acutely aware of her fallibility as both subject and narrator, she avoids falling into the trap of painting a blemish-free portrait of herself. And it's this sincerity that allows her music to connect: cheap perfection may go down easy, but sitting with the truth is transcendent.

Reared in Chicago's poetry community, Fatimah Warner’s flows are less breakneck spitter and more delicate spoken word—soothing but imbued with purpose, soft but commanding. On Room 25, she enlists fellow Chicagoan and frequent collaborator Phoelix, whose resonant live production bathes Noname's lyrics in a haze of cosmic jazz and smooth neo-soul. When she raps “Somebody hit D'Angelo/I think I need him for this one” on the vulnerable “Don't Forget About Me,” it solidifies the connection between generations of organic, mindful, black music: Room 25 is the stylistic lovechild of Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama's Gun—genre-marrying albums as transformative for listeners as they were the artists that created them.

With this record, Noname takes a metamorphic period in her life and shapes it into music. She details the courage of allowing a lover to trace the geography of her body and the heartbreak that followed; the gratification of realizing of a dream and the responsibilities that came with it. She is an enigma parading as an open book, and the details she chooses to divulge seem to hide as much as they reveal. But in the absence of oversharing, there is something universal in her work. She fashions herself an everywoman, and her words become scripture for simply moving through it.

On the charged “Blaxploitation,” she takes the broken politics of the country to task in a flurry of multisyllabic rhymes. She opens her verse breathlessly: “Penny proud, penny petty, pissing off Betty the boop,” the consonants falling on top of each other. The production, a looping confection of funky drums and bass, is the kind of beat that is constructed for the sole purpose of showcasing how Noname can punish it into submission. Quotes from ’70s films Dolemite and The Spook Who Sat by the Door surround her on either side. Along with the more mellow “Prayer Song,” it is the most explicitly political moment on an album that is powered more by subtle observation than outright attacks. She seems to smile and wink through lines, sometimes belying the gravity of them. “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I'm an insomni-black,” she suggests, her voice sounding like she just delivered the punchline of a joke that wasn’t really a joke.

But Noname isn’t laying claim to any “woke” labels just yet. She can do the bravado thing with the best of them or take off her cool and catch an orgasm or two. Her multitudes give her depth—something real for us to latch on to. “Ace” is a good ol’ fashioned victory lap for a trio of Chicago rappers who, over the past few years, have seen their star power continue to grow; Smino's soulful vocals on the hook bend the track towards R&B, while Noname and Saba snap back with verses celebrating their personal successes and that of other artists coming from their hometown.

The sunny “Montego Bae” also stands out as one of only a few truly lighthearted moments on an album of humble prayers and solemn reflection. Chicago singer Ravyn Lenae's voice flutters atop the keys, percussion, and low end, as she and Noname fantasize about a Caribbean fling. Evidence of Noname's sexual awakening is on proud display here: “I know my nigga like me, I know he cook his curry spicy/I know he eat me like I'm wifey, you know my hotel over-pricey/So he gon' fuck me like I'm Oprah.” Still, the sting of heartbreak lingers. Sometimes it comes out as fiery barbs (as on “Self”) and sometimes it’s more matter-of-fact. “I know you never loved me but I fucked you anyway/I guess a bitch like to gamble, I guess a bitch like to lonely,” she confesses on the radiant “Window.”

Through the existential dread of “Don't Forget About Me,” she grapples with immortality and the feeling that some demons follow you no matter where you go: “Welcome to Beverly Hills/Welcome to Vicodin, I took the pills/I think they save lives.” What is pain is also affirmation—her best and only proof that we are not alone in the dark. And in the album’s final minutes, she finds some semblance of peace. She is reborn on the guitar and piano-laden track “no name,” clear-eyed and steady, exposing the things that make her unbreakable and reminding us that after a tumultuous year on the road and a personal transformation, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

Noname doesn't exist in contrast to other popular women rappers or to the narratives of violence that have plagued her hometown. She's not interested in exceptionalism, only in her interiority and that of the world around her. And Room 25 reconciles expectation with result, the choice of others versus self. It's the kind of album you make when a new place and a fragile heart threatens to unravel you and when you inevitably cobble back together the pieces that, it turns out, were never lost. She relieves herself of the need to answer her own tough questions—about her career, her relationships, about who she is as a person—and allows herself a gentle acceptance. Room 25 is quarter-life crisis turned breakthrough, a balm through which Noname offers a taste of the simple sort of heaven that she's still searching for herself.

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