On her sophomore project, Room 25, Chicago poet-laureate-rap-goddess Noname delivers the best album of the year. Period.
Room 25 is the most cohesive, artful, layered release of the year, and one of the best hip-hop albums I have ever heard. I am going to properly credit this hot-take to the big homie Aviv (@_aviv_ on Twitter. Must follow): Room 25 is going to be remembered as the greatest hip-hop project by a female artist. The album has only been out for a week, so it feels a little irresponsible to already say that it is better than The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but the level of artistry Noname displays throughout the project is awe-inspiring. The album is most easily classified as Jazz Rap, but there are heavy neo-soul influences, sprinkles of funk, classic soul and R&B throughout. It is a complete sonic lineage of black music; an ethnography. To succinctly qualify the greatness of this album is a disservice to its genius, so instead I’m just gonna give you the facts and you’ll see why I’m talking my shit.
Front to back, the album flows with a near cinematic quality. The intro track, Self, is the quintessential album introduction. It establishes the sonic themes with a jazzy, percussive beat highlighted with gorgeous string accents. Noname then dives into her singular, dense flow, giving bar after bar over the snapping instrumental. She gives us the update on how we got here from her debut, Teleone (fire), and shows us how she’s leveled up. The flows are somehow tighter, the sonics are more explorative, and she is locked the fuck in.
“Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
This jump-cuts right into my favorite track on the album, Blaxploitation. It opens with a sample from Dolemite then smashes into an irresistible baseline straight from the Superfly soundtrack. Lyrically, Noname sticks to her guns. The flows could be from Three Stacks, but the lyrics could be from Paul Mooney. She ponders the perils of black stereotypes and exploitation, all while delivering some of her hardest hitting bars on wax yet.
“Maybe I’m a hypocrite, maybe I’m hypochondriac
I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black
Bad sleep triggered by bad government”
What. The. Black. Fuck.
My favorite part of the cut is the way she uses Blaxploitation sample in place of hooks and bridges, much like Kanye’s production on DAYTONA or the very unfortunate NASIR. She continues use of this device throughout the record, but it is on best display here on track 2.
She’s in her bag. Period. She tells you in the first 4 minutes of the album, and it’s only getting better from here.
The middle period of the album continues to build on the foundation of the phenomenal first tracks. Perhaps the only real knock you could have had for Noname is that at times she allows the instrumental to overshadow her, despite her undeniable ability as a rapper. On Room 25, that shit is old news. She is laser focused in the booth, enunciating and pushing every syllable out with Lebron level determination. The album is mixed so smoothly her rapping never over shadows the delicate instrumentation, but is never swallowed up in the garden she sowed. On this record, her verses that were budding on Telefone have fully blossomed, and they are the main attraction of the sonic landscape. This shows itself exceptionally on the tracks Prayer Song, Window, and Montego Bae, each featuring a stellar melodic contribution from a featured artist and an expectedly intricate beat, but Noname is always the star of the show.
But the way she wields this star power is the charm of the album. Her voice is like bomb ass incense, some chamomile tea, and a three gram Backwood, all while cuddled up with bae on some rooftop in Summertime Chi. It is so soothing but so powerful, so commanding while nonchalant. It is effortless, efervescent, but the lyrical content is so complex and well crafted that it feels like what you’re listening to can’t possibly just be music. Room 25 is experiential.
Noname’s lyrical themes are well developed, not departing from her repertoire of nostalgia and introspection established on Telefone, but demonstrating the growth that comes with age and career progression. Her authenticity and honesty shows through at every moment, and I truly believe that I’ve never heard a rapper rap so thoughtfully and bluntly this peacefully. There is never a moment on room 25 that disrupts the groove of the album, still the verses pull no punches. She muses on mortality, gentrification, the state of our city, the state of our people. But it is never grim, and it isn’t angry. It’s just passionate in a way that is so unique and so refreshing in a time in which people are clamoring over one another to see who can yell the loudest. The power of the record comes in the quiet moments, the ambiance and the nuance that are the hallmarks of an artist with full command of their medium. Noname is that artist. She is in control of her sound, and it is a sound that will undoubtedly inspire future greats.
This impact is most felt on the closest thing to a banger on the album, Aces. The song features frequent collaborators Saba and Smino, and their chemistry is some of the best in the game. Saba is fresh off the brilliant piece of art that is CARE FOR ME, and Smino is one of the most exciting artists in the genre right now, surely cooking up some fire at this very moment. Peep his complete and total bodying of Drake’s In My Feelings if you don’t believe me. Ace is the perfect posse cut. Smino comes in straight up sounding like D’Angelo (shouted out early on the album, not a coincidence), then Noname comes right back in attack mode, like Smi just played a trap card, and she’s Blue Eyes White Dragon (shoutout Yu-Gi-Oh brrrrrr). But Exodia? This nigga Saba dog. Saba comes through with perhaps the best feature of the year*, flexing his Chicago-Juke-meets-Young-Thug flow with impeccable expertise, and bringing the kind of bars that’ll make your hating ass uncle Darnell get an Apple Music™ subscription. The track is a masterclass in making a collaboration, the best of which I’ve heard since Thug, Flame and Quavo on Pick Up The Phone.
*Only rivaled by 21 on NC-17: “Yo bitch gave the kid cutty but I’m not signed to ‘Ye (on god)/I nutted on her cheek her new nickname is Babyface (21)
Chicago is having a moment. Like, we been having a moment, pretty much since the Sosa summer of 2012. Then we got Chance, and Vic, and most importantly, Herbo. But right now feels special. Valee, Saba, and especially this young queen Noname are the vanguards of the future, and the culture owes them all a check and an Edible Arrangement.
I really don’t know what else to say. Room 25 is a singular project, a truly special moment in hip-hop, and specifically for women in the genre. Hip-hop routinely allows exactly one (1) woman to be popping at a time, and only if they have enough sex appeal to justify rapping. Noname ain’t here for that shit. At all. She herself is an indescribable, uncategorizable talent, and her art speaks for itself. As I mentioned earlier, the easy comparison is Miseducation, as they’re both women delivering a level of intersectional art rare in hip-hop. However, the more apt comparison is To Pimp a Butterfly. Kenny and Noname have a similar lyrical style, are equally versatile and charismatic, have a similar taste for samples and inspiration, and both made unapologetically black music that bangs.
The only problem with that comparison?
Room 25 is better.
More on that later.
NONAME- ROOM 25
ALL OF THEM, BUT IF Y’ALL NIGGAS REALLY GONNA MAKE ME PICK:
DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME
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