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NONAME Room 25 gets 9/10

Noname
Room 25
Independent

9/10

Room 25 marks the official debut album from Noname (aka Fatimah Warner), and is just as strong an outing as her breakout mixtape Telephone from 2016. Originally from Chicago and now based in LA, lyrically she takes on myriad themes from self-actualisation, African-American perspectives, relationships, family, religion and what it’s all about.

At 35 minutes running time, Room 25 is just a minute longer than Telephone, but this time around Noname’s flow is sped up a tad to incorporate all she has to say into the compact tracks. This is a woman with a lot on her mind and a lot to say, with most tracks syllabically dense and the cultural and political commentary sharp, while the more emotional subjects are heartfelt, nuanced and deep. Moreover, her voice has an intimate, personal quality to it, like she’s trying to communicate something important to a friend, with laugh-at-herself humour and frequent melodic inflections to make it more than just straight-up rapping.

Key to both releases is producer Phoelix, who returns here and keeps the beats jazzy, spacious and downtempo, giving Noname plenty of room to weave her observational poetry right through. The grooves feel live and organic, which suits Noname’s down-to-earth lyrics well. Guests lend voice to choruses and the occasional solo verse which provides a pleasing collaborative vibe to the proceedings.

Opener Self starts out with a slow jam with soulful female vocals that frame the line “You thought a bitch can’t rap, huh?”, which Noname spits with a mocking, dismissive chuckle. A couple of more political numbers follow. Blaxploitation takes on African-Americans’ place in current US society, including continued racial profiling and institutional harassment to the beat of a faster-paced boppy track, expressing “I’m struggling to simmer down, maybe I’m an ‘insomni-black’.” Prayer Song takes a mid-tempo pace, with a chorus that sums up US culture: “America the great, it’s Grateful Dead and life for me, apple pie on Sunday morning, obesity and heart disease… Darkness lingers in the wake of slavery”. Noname raps at an extremely rapid pace here, but the delivery is clear if you can keep up with the speed and dense provision of ideas.

Window is a lusher, downbeat track, with a gentle opening with chimes and harps, then widening out to a main melody on swelling strings to give it a real Nelson Riddle retro feel – appropriate, as it’s a nostalgic look back on a past love from an earlier time. The beginning of the second verse abruptly starts with a resigned “I knew you never loved me but I fucked you anyway”, perhaps suggesting a more mature perspective looking back on things now.

More nice laidback highlights follow with Don’t Forget About Me, with keys that dovetail playfully with the string melodies. When she sings “Somebody hit D’Angelo, I think I need him on this one” near the middle of the track, you know she’s feeling it – this is a soulful tune that swells the heart. And when she adds “All I am is everything and nothing at all; all I am is shoulder for your heart to lean on” – you best believe it. And Regal is yet another slow standout number, especially the gorgeous, shimmering melody. The leisurely pace with the warm warbly synths makes for a contemplative mid-album pause.

Taking a different tack, the more whimsical, fast-swinging Montego Bae is a fantasy of a “rent-a-rasta” holiday where western women will take up a Jamaican lover while on the island, the title coming from the main tourist town in the north. More collaborative tracks follow, with Ace featuring blistering fast rhymes by Noname, Smino and Saba over a lazy beat, and Part Of Me follows a similar template, this time with Benjamin Earl Turner guesting.

The last two tracks bring back the emotive, soulful RnB feel, in what’s becoming Noname’s trademark sound. With You maintains the dextrous lyrical flow, but over some laconic guitar with kinetic jazz drums and featuring honest, downhearted lines like “Somebody hold me like I’m almost enough”.

Closing eponymous track no name proffers at explanation of sorts as to how she adopted her stage name. It’s a melancholy recounting, with a sombre melody on piano and more fine guitar work. It ends with two verses sung by Yaw and Adam Ness, with the sentiment that the story’s not over. And interesting Noname doesn’t get the last word in for her own debut album; but not to fret – albums this good take teamwork and no doubt this 27 year old has lots more to say yet.

Just as Telephone was one of my most listened to releases from 2016, Room 25 is a resounding successor, albeit with a few more lines of poetry delivered and slightly quicker cadence. After all, Noname is bursting with ideas, and has the skills to deliver them in her own unique style. There’s nearly a novella amongst the lyrics on the album, and coupled with the languid soulful production, Room 25 is a grand statement on beats, rhymes and life for 2018.

PAUL DOUGHTY

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