“Maybe this the album you listen to in your car
When you driving home late at night
Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye bitches
Maybe this is the entrance before you get to the river
A heaven before the heathen no reason for you to like me
Maybe this your wifey just wanting a clean divorce
The baby ain’t really yours, this really for the babies teething
And chicken wings under-seasoned
Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
– from “Self” by Noname
Today, all of my favorite hip hop artists are Black women.
From Syd the Kid to Jamila Woods to Queen Key, Black women are pushing hip hop forward. Vanguarding a new, yet retrospective era. In some ways this fact is remarkable, in others it is obvious, inevitable. Black women have always had their fingers on hip hop’s pulse, their pens on the paper, their beats in the box. The contributions of Black women, in hip hop, have always been overlooked and exceptionalized. As if the artistry of Black womanhood isn’t older, more foundational than the drum. As if Black women haven’t helped mold every genre from clay. Perhaps the gifted women listed above, and many, many more, are merely reclaiming their time.
Noname, the Chicago native, born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, is one such reclaimer. When her debut album, Telefone, dropped in the summer of 2016, opening with the ethereal, haunting “Yesterday,” I fell in love with a new sound. Every bar carried her signature rhythmic flow, sometimes attacking the tempo, sometimes weaving into it seamlessly, whimsically, like a lace in a sneaker. Telefone was a bearing of Noname’s soul in all of its beautiful duality. The childhood nostalgia of “Diddy Bop” and the familiar puppy love of “Sunny Duet” brought the highs. Songs like “Casket Pretty” and “Shadow Man” brought the sobering lows.
Noname’s first album was a statement of self, a deep dive within to retrieve her soul, pull it out, and display it despite the world. Room 25, her sophomore album, is the story of that soul living in the world. A world that hates it, fears it, beats it down, but secretly wants to be it. It’s the intersectional story of being Black and a woman in America.
With Room 25, Noname takes her listeners on a cross country journey, from Chicago to her new home, LA. “Part of Me” reveals that the album is as much about what she’s found in moving there, as it is about what she’s lost along the way, “Chicago go go cozy, move to LA county. Riddle my old life dead, riddle my new life dead.” In one song, she offers a warning to the wide-eyed California dreamer, “LA be bright but still a dark city.”
She also spends a fair bit of time on the album correcting the assumptions that fans and critics have made about her in the wake of Telefone. In “Window,” Noname assures, melodically but deliberately, that though “everybody think they know me, Don’t nobody really know me.” She admits that, despite the perfect balanced, immaculately “woke” persona that people have painted over her, she’s human. “And yes and yes, I’m problematic too.” Noname’s self-awareness and intersectionality, coupled with her unique flow and jazz-inspired beats are what place her squarely in her own lane.
In “Prayer Song,” Noname dissects America. She peels back the glossy, nationalist epidermis of “Apple pie on Sunday morning,” and “freedom bells” to expose the hidden sinew, bone, and muscle underneath – the darkness that “lingers in the wake of slavery.” The first verse is Black, written from her own perspective as a displaced Chicagoan living in the city of angels. She contrasts the gentrification, overrun hospitals, and corruption of Chicago with the injected, plastic, deceptive faux-perfection of Los Angeles. The lie extends beyond cosmetics and into consciousness. The lie is the dream, an American one, that in California, that out West, happiness awaits, “So come get your happy and your new titties. Said go find your doctor, you can get Kimmy.” It’s a sentiment that Adam Ness, the artist featured in another song, “Part of Me,” seems to share when he laments, “I been everywhere, everywhere let me down.”
The second verse of ‘Prayer Song” is white and blue. In it, Noname takes on the persona of a killer cop, left nameless because the epidemic of police murder can’t be traced back to one name – Eric Van Dyke, Jeronimo Yanez, Timothy Loehmann – but instead, to a system. Lines like “I ain’t see a toddler in the back after firing seven shots, a demon ‘bout to get me, he watching me kill his mom,” and “I seen a cell phone on the dash, could’ve sworn it’s a gun,” bring specific cases to mind but that’s where the familiarity ends.
Noname’s nameless officer turns his eyes inward, ‘Why, oh why my dick getting bigger, this violence turn me on, me on. My mama finally seen her baby on Channel 2, she love me better when I be keeping the streets clean.” And even further inward, into the human emotions that followed the killing “they ain’t tell me how to cry, just shoot – I did – they only taught me how to check her pulse – she dead.” Perhaps the most powerful and horrifying moment is the officer’s conversation with his son, representing the racism, delusion, and privilege that is passed down from generation to generation, “I tell Stanley, when you grow up you gon’ be just like your dad, A free man in the land of the noose. . .”
This killing, though fictional, is indistinguishable from the headlines that never seem to stop flowing directly into our phones. In its wake, and in the wake of all the other killings, wrongful arrests, elections, and chaos, Room 25, a prayer song rises with a message of hope. Of self through struggle. Of salvation through resistance. “The lost have risen, a new religion, hallelujah, amen, amen.”
This review of Noname’s Room 25 was written by guest author Arthur Haynes.