Noname — “Room 25” Review

Noname begins her newest project by reflecting on how listeners will view “Room 25” in the context of their own lives and concerns. Will it be be the album through which they “…question every god, religion, Kanye, b******?” While Noname offers several playful options, she clearly states that, no, this album is by her and for her. This first verse of “Self” sets the tone of “Room 25” as Noname is equal parts referential and introspective. Filled with captivating and sharp verses that are supported by some of the most elegant production of 2018 so far, “Room 25” is another excellent effort from Noname that deservedly claims its place among the strongest releases of the year.

“Room 25” is the successor to Noname’s 2016 mixtape “Telefone,” which proved to be the first point of exposure for many listeners unfamiliar with the Chicago MC. Although she generated buzz after a cosign from Chance the Rapper and a subsequent feature on the song “Lost,” “Telefone” would be Noname’s first full-length project. The mixtape was well received by many, and featured Noname’s unique, bubbly cadence alongside a number of her Chicago-based contemporaries such as Saba and Smino with diverse, sunny production handled primarily by Cam O’bi and Phoelix. The appeal of “Telefone” lay in its refreshing personality and in Noname’s own willingness to explore different song topics as varied as the blissful “Diddy Bop,” the contemplative “Casket Pretty,” or the heartbreaking “Bye Bye Baby.” It’s worth reflecting on the successes of “Telefone,” as “Room 25” is an expansion of the same fundamental strengths found on that project.  

In terms of its production, “Room 25” maintains much of the charm of “Telefone” while exploring a broader range of sounds and genre influences. “Montego Bae,” which features Ravyn Lenae, has a Bassanova influence with a sharp bassline that complements both Ravyn and Noname’s vocals. This song’s instrumental change-up is particularly refreshing as it occurs halfway through the tracklisting.

While there are songs such as “Regal” and “Ace” which are relatively conventional for Noname as far as instrumentals are concerned, the track “Blaxploitation” is a unique moment on the album and in Noname’s discography. Led by an undeniable groove and peppered with numerous vocal samples, the track is both highly nostalgic and contemporary. On the one hand, Noname’s nostalgia is visible in her use of samples from the blaxploitation (a genre of films produced in the early 70s centered on black characters and communities) films “Dolemite” and “The Spook Who Sat By” and her lyrical references to “Superfly.” Her verses, however, deal with contemporary topics as well such as gentrification. At one point she raps about a scenario where the subject’s man moves to Wicker Park and their mother still lives on the Southside [of Chicago]. (Wicker Park in this context represents newly developed, gentrified neighborhoods as a whole.) She even raps about Chick Fil-a: “(Eating Chick-Fil-A in the shadows, that taste like hypocrite/…/Waffle fry my empathy, bitches just really lazy).” It’s unclear if the budget for “Room 25” was substantially larger than that of “Telefone,” however, instrumentals such as those for “Prayer Song,” “Window,” and “With You” are particularly lush and sound as if they were recorded live.

Phoelix distinguishes himself outside of his production on several occasions throughout the record. His two vocal features are excellent, especially his sweet delivery on the hook of “Window.” “Room 25” benefits from its feature list, as Noname again draws from the field of notable artists in Chicago. Familiar names like Saba and Smino are present on “Ace,” which feels like a lyrical playground as the three MCs take turns dropping quotables about their musical success. While the track is definitely an exercise in braggadocio, Noname drops a few telling bars: “I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out/ Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out.” Noname is aware of the personal nature of much of the record. By intertwining personal revelations with fun bars (and a dig at vegan food), Noname is able to engage the listener more deeply with her art without making them “work for it.” Nowhere is vulnerability more present than on the album’s closing track “noname.” Lyrically, Noname grapples with the political, personal, and philosophical questions that resulted in her selection of the Noname monicker. While it isn’t overwhelmingly climactic or grand, “noname” feels like a fitting end to the album, tying things up nicely while affirming Noname’s artistry.

“Room 25” is a blissful, introspective, and wholly engaging commercial debut for the Chicago now LA-based MC. Lyrically and Instrumentally diverse, “Room 25” falters only occasionally where Noname lets songs end with a short verse and a chorus, occasionally leaving the listener pining for a more developed song. On the whole, however, this is a minor shortcoming which isn’t applicable outside a couple examples such as “Blaxploitation” and “Self.” Ultimately, “Room 25” is a great achievement and artistic evolution for Noname. Hopefully her next full length effort will see her experiment further with the instrumentation and feature list. Until then, “Room 25” is a well crafted listen which will keep the listener engaged far past its short 34 minute runtime.

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