Shortly before “Room 25” was released, Noname expressed concern that some of her longtime fans might be frustrated with the album. “I feel like a lotta people are gonna be like, ‘Ughhh,’” she stated in a piece for The Fader. “A lot of my fans…I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah.” Fatimah ironically made quite a name for herself with her 2016 debut mixtape “Telefone,” but fans of the album need not worry that “Room 25” will be a disappointment. On the self-released project—technically her debut studio album—Noname stays true to the artistic vision she created on “Telefone” while pushing her lyricism, production and thematic material to stunning new levels. Noname is correct about one thing though: This album is proof that her music can’t be summed up by simple comparisons to other performers. She is indubitably an artist in her own right.
The first thing that is striking about Noname’s music is her distinctive vocal delivery. While many of her peers tend to use their voices to exude as much volume and attention-grabbing confidence as possible, Noname’s soft, low-key style stands out in sharp contrast. Yet her tone is anything but weak. Her subdued delivery harnesses a unique power, the kind that captivates and makes you want to listen to what she’s saying very, very closely. She has a melodic and rhythmic flow; it’s not surprising that she cut her teeth performing in the Chicago poetry scene. That she takes influence from poetry is just as apparent in her lyrics, which cover everything from her childhood in Chicago, to critiques of American society, to the details of her personal life. She tackles all of these subjects with just the right amount of seriousness and humor. Her smart lyricism pairs perfectly with her smooth style of production, which draws influence from jazz, R&B, neo soul and lo-fi hip-hop. “Room 25” proves more musically ambitious than its predecessor; particularly notable are the energetic samples and bassline on “Blaxploitation,” the poignant piano and guitar work on “no name” and especially the stunning string arrangements on “Window.”
Noname’s newfound artistic confidence is just as present in her lyrics. She addresses her critics on album opener “Self”: “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?/Maybe this your answer for that” (though a few bars later, she clarifies, “Nah actually this is for me”). She doesn’t stop there though: “My pussy teachin’ ninth grade English/My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism/In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus/And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” This line is a stunning example of Noname’s ability to balance real, serious topics with humor and wit, all while delivering infectiously catchy verses (“My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism” went viral on Twitter just a few hours after the album’s release). And this is all in the album’s first two minutes.
Backed by 1970s film samples and a driving bassline on “Blaxploitation,” Noname explores America’s perverse obsession with Blackness and the racist stereotypes it has propagated: “She paid to clean your house, power of Pinesol, baby/She the scrub tub lady/She that naked bitch in videos, that drunk club lady…Who chicken-boned, watermelon-ed/Traded hoodie for hipster, infatuated the minstrel/When we cool, they cool, we die as coon.” She continues her political commentary on “Prayer Song,” which features a haunting chorus by Adam Ness: “America the great, this grateful dead and life for me/Apple pie on Sunday morning, obesity and heart disease/Can you hear the freedom bells?/Can you see the rusty nails chip away on all the coffin?” Mesmeric beats back Noname as she delivers a cutting verse from the point of view of a white cop: “Put your hands behind your back, ante up all your crack bitch/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/A demon ‘bout to get me, he watching me kill his mom.”
Noname discusses more personal insights on “Window,” reflecting on a failed relationship over a tear-jerking string arrangement: “I knew you never loved me but I fucked you anyway/I guess a bitch like to gamble, I guess a bitch like to lonely…The way you struggling to love yourself, believe me that’s karma/You want a nasty bitch, psychiatrist that cook like your mama/ And all you got was me.” Other highlights include the witty, Caribbean-influenced “Montego Bae,” which features a chorus from Ravyn Lenae, and “Ace,” a carefree celebration of success including longtime collaborators/friends Smino and Saba.
The album’s most heart-wrenching moments occur on centerpiece “Don’t Forget About Me,” a track that finds a much less self-assured Noname revealing insecurities surrounding her newfound success and image: “You title email ‘Noname thank you for your sweet ‘Telefone,’ it saves lives’/The secret is I’m actually broken… Tell ’em Noname still don’t got no money/Tell ’em Noname almost passed out drinking.” On the second verse, she reflects on the realities of her recent move to Los Angeles: “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty, changed my city/Titties 13k, the pretty costs these days…Welcome to Beverly Hills/Welcome to Vicodin, I took the pills.”
She delivers these lines in a near-whisper, but you can still hear the pain and vulnerability in her voice. It’s a striking moment, and a powerful affirmation of her humanity and integrity. “All I am is everything and nothing at all,” she chants with rising fervor, “All I am is shoulder for your heart to lean on/All I am is love.” Finally, she reminds us that our deepest and most personal fears are often the most universal: “I know everyone goes someday/I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay/But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal/And my momma don’t forget about me.”
Noname may seem like an odd moniker for such a strong and distinctive artist, but on the album’s closing track, she points out its symbolic power: “No name for people to call small or colonize optimism/No name for inmate registries that they put me in prison…When labels ask me to sign, say my name don’t exist, so many names don’t exist.”
And she’s right; with no name (and no label), she’s crafted a unique style and distinguished herself as one of the most talented voices in alternative hip hop, all while developing a dedicated following that will surely continue to grow. Besides being one of the strongest releases of the year, “Room 25” is a stunning personal snapshot of a young artist who is right where she wants to be, and who undoubtedly has more great things ahead of her.