We should’ve seen this coming. For an artist so averse to a camera lens, never mind a semi-dustbowl of a Twitter and Insta presence, Chicago’s Noname probably thinks we all have ideas about her. Many of them are trash. 2016’s Telefone was praised for its chill, sunny-side-up production, and lines about trading Hennessey and cigarettes for happiness. The 25-year old slam poet seemed to frame the cinema verité of Millennial hip hop – a smoking girl on the porch, worried about her rent payments, instead of a marquee rap action hero toting cars, money and beef. A girl we could relate to. “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car,” she wonders in the first bars of Room 25, “when you driving home late at night, really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches.” Are we after the small, banal stuff that makes us feel connected to each other, or something Important, that has already torn people up the world over?
Well, perhaps the two can co-exist on the same record; Noname’s biggest fear is that we’ll force things on her prematurely – status, influence, the declamatory answers of black womanhood – without letting her find herself. When we’re dreaming across the seas for a lover (as on ‘Montego Bae’), the heavy stuff can be compartmentalised, as it must, otherwise we’d go nuts.
From track to track, her flow delights in the profane, the ridiculous and genuinely vulnerable sides to being young in a position you thought you’d never have. Contradictions are everywhere, which is why they’re so meaningful. Noname may still be broke, most of the time. But now she is richer for the adulations of Telefone, and a little scared about what they’ve led to. “Only worldly possession I have is life,” she tells us after 30 minutes. “Only room that I died in was 25.” She’s been reborn into sexual confidence, asking a man to fuck her like Oprah, whilst comparing her body to clay bound for collapse on ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, one of the record’s sharpest interrogations of the legacy she might be stoking. Damn, we’ve all been there – in a bed at night, knowing we have potential, just unsure if it’s the good kind.
The music, compared to her self-released debut, is more fractured. Anxiety feeds the sticks of ‘Regal’, entering halfway through the song, refusing to settle, before ‘Part Of Me’ balances on a hit-hat that rattles like a cold jaw. There are breaks and bubbly synths, as if we’re emerging from a waking dream. ‘Prayer Song’ throws us an intro, stops, then picks up again with a refocused beat. And between it all we have Noname paying lopsided attention to the arrangements, in that mellow, casual-putdown rap style she’s been honing over house party sofas. Her collaborators fall in line. ‘Ace’, the most single-friendly cut, has a breathless verse from Saba, whose claims of barely working to keep his talent in check ring true to ideas of doing things at your own pace, achieving power by eating morsels of joy when they’re served up.
But for me, Room 25 soars on its orchestral passages – ‘Window’ being the initial, erm, window into the impression of floating away, beyond the glass, to the sky of clear-eyed love. That’s love for the self, mind you. Dick and pussy are tossed around like play-dough, punched into dizzy stories of how worthless it is being in thrall to someone else besides yourself. Our healthiest tales are still those where we’re the main character. So once those strings began to glide, I was basically clapping at any empty room. Being tickled and identified with is nice. Yet to be utterly transported somewhere beautiful, like an MGM musical, was so very surprising.
Noname’s affectless modesty – her nonchalance, come what may – is thus more than a warm, witty time with a pair of earphones. It can be magical too. She’s not sentimental, or about to break a leash she may have woven from drink and neurosis, but she is darn keen to make us think we can fly.