In a landscape where her contemporaries are hyper-prolific releasers, unleashing surprise projects and scrapbook-like mixtapes on a regular basis, Noname stands out as a patient outlier. Listening to her debut mixtape ‘Telefone’ – a dizzyingly detailed log of delicately spun arrangement and intimate telephone conversations, which propelled her to well-deserved cult-status – in 2016, Fatimah Warner’s meticulousness was already apparent. “I incubate for a long-ass time,” she put it bluntly, speaking to The Fader.
With a gift for agile word-play, and a handle on cadence that makes her delivery feel like a smooth pebble skimming magically across water, Noname has – ironically – built her name on a subtle, jazz-flecked craft that blends intense joy with a glum sort of melancholy. It’s the sort of subtlety that requires time, and space. In typical low-key style, Noname celebrated her post-’Telefone’ ascension with a single London show (perhaps the sweatiest Electrowerkz that Angel Islington has ever seen). Over the following two years, her dedicated following has only grown, and she returned to London to fill out KOKO last month. ‘Room 25’ – a tricksy, often hilarious account of her new-found fame and the realities of being a broke independent artist with rent to pay – only raises her star further.
“Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night / Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches,” raps Noname in the opening moments of ‘Room 25’. And she’s right: on her debut album, the artist creates reflective, searching art; far more interested in learning something new about herself rather than Yeezy-like explosions of grandeur and chest-puffing. Guest spots from Adam Ness, Phoelix, Saba, Smino, and Benjamin Earl Turner pepper the record, which rejects the showiness of rap records that line up one star co-sign after another. Instead, many of Noname’s collaborators come from her musical past, or her hometown of Chicago.
When ‘Room 25’ does revel in Noname’s newfound profile, it does so with tongue firmly in cheek. “My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” she quips on ‘Self’, “…Y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” And she’s got another one-liner up her sleeve to add: “Maybe this your answer for that / Good pussy, I know n****s only talk about money and good pussy“.
Since releasing ‘Telefone’, Noname’s relocated from Chicago to LA, where she prefers comedy clubs to champagne-swigging hedonism. Many of her friends are rising comedians, apparently, and it’s a kinship that makes sense. Much of ‘Room 25’ is not only smartly constructed – it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Meanwhile, In ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ – a tender, wordplay-filled tale of a mother going through chemotherapy – Warner muses on the limited powers of her art, and cracks out the most arresting couplet of the year: “All her hair gone/ Feeling fishy, Finding Chemo/ Smoking seaweed for calm / These Disney movies too close”. Her ponderings on mortality give way to a spiralling string orchestra that wouldn’t sound out of place in the opening moments of Cinderella.
Noname said in a recent interview that hiring that particular 12-piece orchestra (she remains thoroughly independent, an expensive business) blew the entire budget for the project. Unlike many rappers out there, Noname isn’t bringing us a romantic rags-to-riches story; here she acknowledges the pitfalls of fame (as well as the occasional perks) with whip-smart honesty. Just like ‘Telefone’, it’s flawless.