The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
—by Kemet High
There’s power in mystery. To find all of the golden sounds of Chicago, you have to seek them out, as they’re less likely to make rotations on the East and West coasts. However, when you do find the gems, they’re more than rewarding. Chicago artists have been consistently cooking up musical heat since 2013. As the city continues to apply pressure on other hip-hop meccas like Atlanta and New York City, every few months, the spotlight is shed on another new artist. Split into two sides that consist of drill rap from the likes of Chief Keef and G Herbo, and alternative rap from Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, Chicago also serves as the home of conscientious poetry, the kind delivered by rapper Noname. In a state of hip-hop and music where rap from women sells off of sexuality and violence, Noname has independently crept her way into people’s headphones by doing something completely different: lullaby rap.
Music is dominated by the turn-up, as tracks like Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and Nicki’s “Barbie Tingz” have proven by flooding the radio. But in this case, turning down has actually worked despite going against the grain. Before she dropped the “Gypsy” off the end of her rap moniker, Noname’s feature on Chance’s “Lost” gained her the curiosity of listeners all over the East Coast and Midwest. But after a few years on hiatus, she released her debut album Telefone in the summer of 2016 and, utilizing a live band and personal introverted reflection, began expanding her reach, opening up for the O.G. Lauryn Hill and performing at California’s Coachella.
Noname’s sedated rap style can serve as the soundtrack to your dreams. Her elegiac tracks work because, as calm as they are, they speak loudly. And her exquisite ability to story-tell proves that she can spit rather than just make hype music. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself lost in a pool of bars that reflect herself, her hometown, life outlook, and social frustrations: “The doorbell was only broken ’cause auntie was fighting cancer / And cigarettes on my mantle keep callin’ me by my first name / Loving me when I’m lonely, pretending they really Noname,” she rapped on Telefone‘s “Reality Check.” But now two projects in—Noname released her second studio album Room 25 last week (September 14)—she clearly feels she has something to prove.
Don’t get tranquility confused with a lack of skill. The 11-track LP begins with “Self,” which sets an early tone for what to expect throughout the project. It isn’t for the clubs, parties, and kickbacks; it’s for late-night drives and talks by the riverfront. “Self” is a deep dive into the subconscious mind of curiosity and contemplation and, as we gear up to take this journey, Noname also lets us know that she is no longer here to be slept on. She doesn’t do many interviews or press runs, but the mystery of her persona and music has garnered enough reception. And now that it has, she wants her respect and credit. Though her lack of a lengthy discography, and inconsistent features add a rarity to her music, there’s mystery to what she may be cooking up. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she rhymes.
Even with that confidence, Room 25 chronicles the growth of Noname not only as an artist, but as a person. Her journal-like lyrics make clear that she is still figuring out who she is and what she wants in her life. On “Don’t Forget About Me,” she openly admits: “You title email ‘Noname, thank you for your sweet ‘Telefone’ / It saves lives’ / The secret is I’m actually broken/ I tried to raise a healing kneeling at the edge of the ocean.”
Relatable to many listeners, she’s also exploring her blackness. Her second track, “Blaxploitation,” defines the conflicts and frustrations with being, owning, and navigating being black in America. “Penny proud, penny petty, pissing off Betty the Boop / Only the niggas that hoop, traded my life for cartoon / Dance monkey dance, cathedral gon’ pay me good tonight / Eating Chick-Fil-A in the shadows, that taste like hypocrite,” she spits. Sampling audio from a monologue in the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door, “Blaxploitation” is about social and civil rights, along with black militancy. So as much as Noname keeps her easy-listening music light-hearted, she dives into the real, too.
Additionally, her instrumentation creates the perfect playground for her to lyrically slide. Almost halfway through the album, “Window” takes you from your headphones to an amplified auditorium. Beginning with heavy strings and xylophone keys, “Window” further reflects the instrumental authenticity that is present along the entire album; she doesn’t use computerized sounds nearly as much as she uses a band, so her lyrics are pleasantly greeted with house and funk vibes that we don’t commonly hear in rap.
“Ace” is easily the best song on the album. (Noname, Smino, and Saba might as well become the new Fugees they way they bodied this one.) The three lyrically bleed into one another with wittiness and metaphors that make it hard for one to catch all of the bars at once, but if someone needed a proper introduction to hip-hop in the year 2018, this song might arguably be one of the best options to present from the composition, chorus, and lyrical execution. Songs don’t have to be “hard” to leave a lasting impact. “Ace” is fun and reflects Noname’s playful personality but, in that same breath, she refuses to sugarcoat what she thinks is real: “Labels got these niggas just doing it for the clout / I’m just writing my darkest secrets like wait and just hear me out / Saying vegan food is delicious like wait and just hear me out.”
With the LP executively produced by Phoelix—the glue to Noname, Saba and Smino’s art supplies-turned-masterpiece—his musical composition transforms rap and poetry from track to track, adding an alternative element to rap that pleases both active and relaxed senses of captivated engagement, and reminding listeners that Chicago is strong in its use of jazz influences.
The features Noname has used in both Telefone and Room 25 are gifts, as we’re put onto new artists like Adam Ness or further introduced to artists like Ravyn Lenae. Her last track, “No Name,” featuring vocals from Yaw & Ness, sounds like a scripture. As the album politely comes to an end, Noname reverts back to Fatimah (her real name) and provides her last anecdote, telling the tales of being introverted with extroverted tendencies. It’s here that she finally explains why she goes by her stage name, refusing to be placed into and defined by the boxes that come with her economic status, gender, and race. She raps, “No name for private corporations to send emails to / ‘Cause when we walk into heaven, nobody’s name gon’ exist / Just boundless movement for joy, nakedness radiates.”
With a short discography, it’s natural for an artist to still be figuring their sound out. Although her production makes use of jazz, funk, and soul, there are times when the mix between lyrics and sound can be hard to receive, as on “Montego Bae” or “Part of Me.” What was present on Telefone but not on Room 25 is composition consistency. Although her sleek music plays to her abilities, it also creates an expectancy for all of her songs to sound the same, so when she does experiment, it can sound overwhelming. It’s a rollercoaster that could have ridden smoother with cohesion.
Nonetheless, this level of artistic conveyance can be compared to that of Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole, as they all know how to get a point across without conforming to the trends of the industry. At a time when aggressive and sexualized rap by women has taken precedence, Noname stands to shake the scene up. This woman can rap her ass off, and although the mystery has been prominent for the past few years, Noname is now, well, making a name for herself.
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