Noname (actual name Fatimah Nyeema Warner) has changed since her 2016 mixtape, Telefone. Telefone was a luxurious blend of jazz-tinged hip-hop and dreamy neo-soul production that instantly made her an exciting new artist. On her debut album Room 25, she’s maintained those musical touchstones, but her lyrics are darker and deeper. Noname grapples with how things have changed by examining herself as well as questioning everything around her. She does this with self-awareness — as her wit and passion characterise every song on this fully-realised debut.
Noname draws you in straight away with ‘Self’– a brief and neatly paced intro. Noname ponders how her audience will take in the music they’re about to hear: “maybe this is a album you’ll listen to in your car when you’re driving home late at night really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches”. She repeats, “you really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” radiating a casual confidence that’s endearing. Her rousing stream-of-conscious flow more than backs up her claim.
Her impressive delivery continues on ‘Blaxploitation’, which features a weaving funk bass-line and an insistent rhythm (she barely pauses for breath). Whilst she often appeared optimistic and relaxed on Telefone, there’s an urgency to this declaration about the worrying state of current politics: “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an insomni-black, bad sleep triggered by bad government”. For an album that’s musically breezy, the underlying lyrical tone is dark.
‘Prayer Song’ has a loose arrangement that’s reminiscent of Digable Planets’ The Blowout Comb. Again, she delivers hard truths about disillusionment in her country, “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?”. The pensive ‘Window’ features a similar instrumental and adds a swelling string arrangement. The smooth chorus comes courtesy of Phoelix who produced the album and accommodated Noname’s vision.
After touching on D’angelo’s aesthetic earlier, Noname gives him a shoutout on the reflective, ‘Don’t Forget About Me’. It’s a testament to her songwriting that this gentle groove could fit on his masterpiece, ‘Voodoo’. Noname alludes to issues coping with fame and depression as she says, “thank you for your sweet Telefone, it saves lives, the secret is I’m actually broken”. She questions her own existence before a rare instance of optimism, “all I am is everything and nothing at all, all I am is a shoulder for your heart to lean on, all I am is love.” Her raw confessional nature — even when she accepts she doesn’t have the answers — is easy to love.
‘Montego Bae’ is the album’s most vibrant moment. Noname talks about sex and shows her sense of humour, “so he gonna’ f**k me like I’m Oprah, classy bitch only use a coaster”. It acts as a nice detour from the album’s underlying themes of tough introspection. The rolling rhythm is very Erykah Badu circa Worldwide Underground — in the best possible way. Ravyn Lenae lends her soulful voice that recalls 70s soul legends Syreeta and Minnie Riperton.
The production on ‘Ace’ is sensual as she confesses, “I’m just writing my darkest secrets like, wait and just hear me out’. The chilled out R&B of songs like this and ‘Regal’ make a cool compliment to Kali Uchis’ Isolation (one of 2018’s many album of the year contenders). On the closer, ‘Noname’, the heavenly backing vocals drift underneath a smattering of synths and piano. Adam Ness gives the song a gospel touch before Yaw appears to end Room 25 on a positive note as she repeats, “it’s your life, your life, don’t let it pass you by”.
On Room 25, Noname reveals herself to be a formidable force with her heartfelt delivery and always-gripping conversational style. Her immense talent as a rapper is shown in her clever and biting word-play on this moving and incredibly charming release. Room 25 is the finest hip-hop album in years.