What makes a rapper? Noname's second album Room 25 gives us an answer
Few other artists straddle the past, the present and the future with such ease, says Tutku Barbaros
In a 2017 interview, Noname was asked if she regards herself as a rapper or a poet. There are two things at play here 1) this is a gendered question — her male equivalent wouldn’t be asked this — and 2) it ignores the many that things rap can be. Noname responds bluntly: “I’m definitely a rapper.” This is obviously a recurring query because in ‘Self’, the opening track of her debut album Room 25 (which is entirely independently funded by the way), she announces, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh? Well maybe this your answer for that.” Oooofff. It’s clear from the off she’s going to go in, off and all out with this album.
As the next 35 minutes plays through the speakers I note that each track has been so artfully constructed, so packed with layers and so thoughtfully written that I could do a review per song. Noname reels off ‘Montego Bae’ like a tongue in cheek two act play about a sexy affair, while ‘Blaxploitation’ is a clever nod to the responsibility she feels as a black artist to be real about Black America. To say ‘Ace’ is smooth would be an understatement; it’s more like the total calm you feel when pouring double cream into melted chocolate — the elixir of R&B sponsored life.
Nothing is superfluous; every beat, joke, and reference (to everything from Lauryn Hill to Disney) is self-aware and pristinely timed. This is displayed most potently in the extensive use of jazz — not as a filler, or a safety net, but a reminder of everything that’s gone before. The influence of Noname’s fellow Chicago artists, poets, and jazz musicians, who collaborated, struggled and fought for the legacy now courses through her. She, in return, respects that legacy while lovingly updating it. Few other artists straddle the past, the present and the future with such ease.
This is an album to get lost and found in. It’s like swimming backwards in an expansive sea, and what’s a sea without a few sharks? Throughout the album she meditates on the anxieties that threaten us. ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ is a heart breaker — “I know everyone goes someday, I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made of clay, But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal. And my momma don’t forget about me.” There’s so much fragility and vulnerability in those lines that for a second it feels like the tide might swallow me whole.
Noname specialises in taking us to the brink of our thoughts, focusing on the unknowns of existence, before pulling us back into the everyday. She raps lines like “I know you never loved me, but I fucked you anyway” because she knows grapple with lust just as we grapple with mortality. The album might be bleak were it not so bursting with mantras — as it turns out, I think Room 25 Is actually the self help symposium we’ve been waiting for. At the time of writing, my favourite line comes in ‘No Name’ when she affirms “the only worldly possession I have is life,” but I know that with each listen, with each mood, a new Noname-ism will catch me.
At a time in which rap has increasingly been hijacked by staged beefs, commercial over-production and collaborations based on money making potential, Noname is different — in particular from the dominant female rappers — not least because she’s not trying to be a pop star. Apart from her album art, not a single visual representation of her work exist. Noname’s not striving for the theatrics, costume changes and short film music video aesthetic we know so well.
Her last tweet, 20 hours ago reads “please keep sharing this. Yall posting my music is what helps me stay independent.” As I read it that question from the interview popped back into my mind, and I laughed at how badly that guy got it wrong. Because let’s be honest: only a rapper who really truly believes in the countercultural power of the form would have faith enough to rely on nothing but the bars and the fans.
What did you think of Room 25? Let us know in the comments below!