Noname’s Warmer Take on Hip-Hop
The Chicago rapper-singer’s Room 25 is the best rap album of the past year
Photo: Chantal Anderson
Hip-hop is in the midst of an age of maximalism. In 2018, Atlanta’s Migos released the 105-minute double album Culture II, an overstuffed record that Vulture's Craig Jenkins accused of being a “data dump.” Not long after, Rae Sremmurd shared SR3MM, a triple album that showcased Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi with a full solo LP each, not unlike OutKast’s 2003 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. And Drake, well, he’s released 250 minutes of music in the past three years. It’s easy to see this as generous—more music is never a bad thing, right? That’s one way to look at it, but there’s also a cynical way to look at it: Billboard’s Hot 100 chart now factors in streaming activity for its rankings, so one way for big labels to game the system is to simply release more music. And that’s how Drake achieved a record last year when seven songs from Scorpion ended up in the top 10 in the same week.
The best hip-hop album of 2018, however, was only 34 minutes and released independently. It’s Noname’s Room 25, and none of its songs even made the Billboard charts. But that didn’t stop it from being universally acclaimed, ranked by NPR as one of the best albums of 2018, among other accolades. There are no gimmicks, no elaborate marketing schemes, and surely not 50 minutes of filler. Noname, whose actual name is Fatimah Warner, simply recorded an album and released it. And it’s the strongest half hour of hip-hop to emerge in recent months.
Warner hails from the same Chicago hip-hop scene that yielded talents like Chance the Rapper (whose mixtape Acid Rap gave her some early visibility), Saba, Jamila Woods and Mick Jenkins. And much like those artists, she deftly blends more traditional hip-hop sounds with R&B, neo-soul and poetry. Room 25 is an album that’s at times deeply personal, the title a reference to the various hotel rooms she’d been living out of the year prior to writing the record, and it addresses America’s race and gender inequities through alternately clever and heartbreaking turns of phrase. On “Prayer Song,” she addresses the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile, saying, “I seen a cell phone on the dash, could’ve sworn it’s a gun/I ain’t seen a toddler in the back after firing seven shots.” She strikes a more playful tone on “Blaxploitation,” however, taking aim at stereotypes over a funky backing track that evokes the ’70s-era film soundtracks referenced in its title.
There’s something else that sets Room 25 apart from many recent hip-hop records: It’s an incredibly warm set of music. Noname most often employs warm keyboards and bass lines to icy piano loops, and even when she’s taking a long, hard look at something heartbreaking or tragic, it’s hard not to come away from the album feeling good—nourished, even. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have time for the darker narratives of Pusha-T or Vince Staples, but Room 25 offers an intimacy that few rap records of late can.
Other Recommended Shows This Week:
Low (March 13, Mous Tache Bar, Tijuana): It’ll be worth the trip across the border to catch Low, a band who made their name on slow, meditative, and atmospheric rock music but whose recent work is nothing short of artistic reinvention. Their new album Double Negative has been compared to Radiohead’s Kid A due to its experimental use of electronics, space, and texture, and it’s one of their best in years.
Rhett Miller (March 16, Soda Bar): Rhett Miller made a name for himself as the frontman of the Texas alt-country outfit The Old 97’s, though even without a band backing him he’s a pretty entertaining fellow, as anyone who caught his shows at LA’s Largo in the early ’00s would tell you. Expect a mix of old and new and more than a few surprises for good measure.
Madlib (March 16, Music Box): Madlib is a hip-hop legend, having provided beats for Madvillain, his iconic collaboration with MF DOOM, remixed selections from Blue Note Records’ jazz catalog on his album Shades of Blue, and even created his own rap alter-ego, Quasimoto. He helped define the sound of West Coast hip-hop in the ’00s, and he’s still got more sonic exploration to do.