In the opening 90 seconds of Room 25 — the sophomore effort by Chicago’s own Noname — our protagonist poses the question: “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” For the converted listener — whether floored by her show-stealing wider introduction on Chance the Rapper’s “Lost,” or her spellbinding 2016 cult classic solo debut Telefone — the question, however rhetorical, borders the offensive. Offensive in the sense of… who the fuck would ask that question once they heard Fatimah Warner spit? Still, the question burns even as Noname deflates it by spilling her observations, affirmations and some wildly imaginative personification of the capabilities of her pussy. (To elaborate would be to spoil.) And this is within the first 90 seconds; she’s amplifying herself far more than silencing critics, and she did not come to play. This was no fluke, and this is hip-hop bowing to her rule.
The playful air that coated Telefone with a childlike wonder is far more hazy on Room 25, sometimes billowing with smoke. Not that its predecessor came without its tragedies and misfortunes, but this album makes homes of all the ugly things and the beautiful, seizing our hand to swing at the world built for us and offering to build our new realities brick-by-brick. This album’s arrived in the midst of a firestorm surrounding hip-hop’s top two women; a messy affair overloaded by its intersections, causing some to reinforce the false capitalistic notion that only one woman can succeed in hip-hop at a time. We find Noname elsewhere, in the calmness wedged between the chaos, and she’s running headfirst into every problem and contradiction rearing its ungreased scalp. Rather than basking in the near-hotepisms of every Lauryn Hill/Erykah Badu/(insert Conscious Black Sista) comparison she’s received, Noname’s returned to solidify her oneness by owning her everything. And the everything isn’t the neat little bow on the sweet potato pie: she’s dabbling in Hollywood and the drugs that come with it, she eats Chik-fil-A on the hush with every homophobic morsel, she’s a Black woman from Inglewood where “the trauma came with the rent.” (Lest we forget the pussy, what it’s done and what it can do if it’s in ya life!)
To enter Room 25 is to enter a deep-dive into the personal as political, fueled by a masterclass in rapping, melody, and comedic timing. Despite Warner’s transparency about the capitalistic demands this album was borne from — she couldn’t keep touring the same 10 songs, and her responsibilities have risen with her success — it does nothing to retract this labor of love. Her brevity and patience have proved her greatest assets, and the month-long creation window bore dense, vulnerable, blissful fruit. Room 25 accomplishes triple the artistic strides in nearly a third of the runtime of many of her peers; a weekend sitting with it won’t scrape the surface off the depth of her brilliance. Calling in Phoelix as executive producer to maintain the Noname live sound, the jazziness feels like crisper, grander, more daring terrain that Noname always answers the call for. Sometimes she raps to the drums, most times she raps to the cadences of her melodies. On a whim, she can assume the role of a bloodthirsty officer, a cocky debutante and your local 20-something creative who moved to California. And she faces the world, then a drink, then the dick, then the Devil. Mortality is palpable, and death is coming one day. With all due respect, Room 25 is messy in the most thoughtful ways imaginable.
And when her Chicago-centered collaborators appear for the fun? You get the perfection of a record like “Ace”: Noname, Smino and Saba cascading from each other in a wavelength of effortless flows that cover everything from globalization to an angry landlord. You get the nimble slugfest-quality of Benjamin Earl Turner on “Part of Me.” You get Ravyn Lenae’s buttery optimism on “Montego Bae,” summoning a lounge-y quality of decades past, transporting us to a prosperity many wish they could experience. A mere weekend in with this record and there’s nothing in mind to critique, so let’s examine the common detractions: the lullaby quality of her voice, almost hushed to a whisper? Proven always appropriate, the matter-of-factness stealthily sinking in one’s skin. Her wordiness, perhaps inaccessible? Ludicrous: on this record, she hides absolutely nothing away. The length? As stated previously, there’s a bountiful amount to unpack in a compact package — perhaps that’s the Noname way. In the third quarteRoom 25 emerges as an undisputed top-five rap album for the year, meaning Chicago’s got two records in that conversation. Again, who said that bullshit about Noname not being able rap? To quote — rather, channel — the Chicago comedian Donterio Hundon, of OnBaby Instagram fame: “Shutcho goofy-ass up! You ugly as hell, boa, on my kids, you bogus!”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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