Observation is not always as passive as it seems. When Noname looks at the world, she presents her findings casually, but every time she raps she gives us ruminations instead of conclusions. 2016’s Telefone was one of the sharpest exhibits of storytelling and poetry to rise from the notoriously sharp Chicago scene, but that wouldn’t be your immediate takeaway. Sure, Noname rambles with the cadence of a slam poet while keeping her voice within an unmistakably conversational tone. Yet Telefone was smothered in an aura that was carefree, almost dangerously jubilant. Noname may have been looking us in the eye, but the album felt like a breeze. It was cleverly deceptive but also suggested that such a powerful voice could cut much deeper.
One time, I watched Noname perform Telephone highlight “Casket Pretty”, a song that minces no words about the tragic number of black bodies that fall victim to police brutality. Yet, in the heat of the moment, we bopped our heads, we whooped, we sang along. At the end of the song, Noname pointed out that we were basically cheering for black death. It got awkward. She acknowledged the awkwardness with a wink, but the message was clear: it was time to listen. With Room 25, Noname effortlessly wins the attention she deserves, and this time, it’s much harder to bop away.
Not only is Room 25 more willing to embrace darkness, complexity, and unapologetic confidence, but it is birthed out of an entirely new set of circumstances. While Telefone was a Chicago album through-and-through, Room 25‘s namesake comes from the geographic ambiguity of two years spent living on the road. She sums it up nicely on “With You” where she raps “shared my life on Telefone, room 25 and 306, and 809 became my home”. Being thrown into the cutthroat touring process for two whole years is a unique and inherently transformative experience, and Room 25 captures this transformation in all its push-pull nuance, without sacrificing Noname’s sharp eye for her surroundings. In this sense, Room 25 is excitingly personal. In the past, Noname the character has taken a passenger seat to Noname the narrator. Now she opens things up and focuses on her journey, and there’s a lot of growth to be exhibited. It’s an album with purpose, a moving snapshot of a coming-of-age worthy of all this great music.
One of the key reveals on the Room 25 press cycle was that Noname was a virgin when Telefone came out, and on Room 25 she raps about sex a lot, applying to it the same coy passion that defines her take on everything else. She says “pussy” four times on the album’s first track, but it’s mostly to adorn theses on colonialism and a self-aware succumbing to the rap game’s standard of money and sex over everything. Elsewhere, she pleads to be fucked on the ground and fucked on the bed, with each “fuck” embellishing the track’s flow like a blush, reveling in the ridiculousness of it all. On Ravyn Lenae-featuring album highlight “Montego Bae”, she sings-raps “yes, I lick ’em up, oh yes I really do” and rhymes it with a line about how she’s “problematic too” and on “Ace”, she raises her arms to declare “fucking is fantastic”, basking in the beauty of her revelation. Room 25 is equal parts mocking, enthusiastic, and self-assured, assuming a confidence that makes her passion all the more charming.
Noname is still political as ever, but there’s a level of nuance and creativity that hovers around her takes, making them as funny as they are biting. Lines calling back to Hillary Clinton’s black-vote grasping comments about keeping “hot sauce in her purse” are ripped to shreds on “Blaxploitation”, making accusations of her “masquerading the system” sting hard. Other pop culture takedowns are just as penetrating. “Ace”, the album’s most clear-cut banger due to the jaw-dropping chemistry between Noname and guests Smino and Saba, eyes-down the absurdity of Hollywood sweetheart/sexual harasser Morgan Freeman continuing to have a career, a moment that is unmissable, even if you’re taking in the sweet, smooth exquisiteness of the melodies. Noname is an artist that benefits from less compromise and more awkwardness, but her songs still have the capacity to make you swoon.
Indeed, Room 25 doesn’t just cut deeper; it sounds better. Noname still adopts an ultra-casual flow that makes it sound like she’s sitting you down and telling you something, but this time it is pushed even closer to a whisper. At times, it’s like she’s trying not to be heard by anyone in a packed room, but the closeness of her vocals amp up the intimacy. This album sounds like a one-on-one. Furthermore, where Telefone could get misunderstood as a record full of sunny summer bops, Room 25 ensures that its music is as complex as its message. These instrumentals are jam-packed with snaps, strings, and hypnotic grooves that ease their way into the mix so subtly. The bass and live percussion are delicately weaved together, and the arrangements are spacious, but the time signatures and pace exist outside of most rappers’ comfort zones. Everything is lusher here, equal parts soft and dark, and the uncontained energy is a far more compelling aura for Noname to tumble through.
Yet, for all the personality and reflection that comes out on Room 25, Noname’s eloquent observations make for some of the stickiest moments on this album. When she ponders the hypocrisy of eating Chick-Fil-A “in the shadows” on “Blaxploitation”, she doesn’t do so with a stern finger-wag but an onomatopoeic overcoming of sensation — “mmm, yummy, tasty” — kickstarting a flow that unwinds with her confronting the “thinkpiece” nature of her music head-on. However, these songs aren’t thinkpieces. These are acute contemplations from someone with a lot to chew on. Room 25 sees a brilliant writer finding her outlet, taking in the world around her, and spinning it into her own extraordinary web.