‘Underrated’ is a term we shouldn’t have to keep using to describe 27-year-old Fatimah Warner, aka Noname. With a critically acclaimed mixtape – 2016’s Telefone – under her belt, as well as several lauded features with fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper, it’s criminal that her music hasn’t reached a wider audience yet. Her debut album, Room 25, may very well be her allow that breakthrough to happen.
Though she’s quick to remind us that the album was made with only herself in mind, it’s not difficult to connect and identify with her profound lyricism. This is in large part due to Warner sounding far more sure of herself than she has in the past. The album’s opener, ‘Self’, establishes this with a strong sense of loveable braggadocio, as the rapper proclaims “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism” before mockingly asking “y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
Love and sex are subjects that appear fairly frequently throughout the album. Whilst there are lyrical moments on the album that appear to be straightforward in their discussion of relationships, the allegories become clearer on closer inspection. ‘Prayer Song’ sees sex being tied with the power and immorality, with Noname rapping from the perspective of a depraved police officer who is ‘turned on’ by corruption and violence on the second verse. The sexual themes on the following track, ‘Windows’, however seem to be representative of a strong sense of self-empowerment, with the rapper telling her lover “This song ain’t even about you”. Placing the latter track after the former was no doubt an intentional thematic choice, and hints towards the idea of Warner – or maybe even all women of colour – reclaiming power from their oppressors, which is an ingenious sentiment.
Other personal topics are addressed throughout the album, such as on the emotional centerpiece ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, in which Noname expresses both her awareness of the brevity of life and her desire to be remembered. The track is littered with references to her own life, but the existential pondering that’s at the center of the song renders it entirely universal. Even on the more socially conscious tracks, such as ‘Blaxploitation’ and ‘Part of Me’, Warner is still able to add a healthy dose of introspection, weaving in her upbringing and personal struggles into discussions of the current political turmoil in America.
The album pulls together some impressive features as well, with Ravyn Lenae providing an exceptional and alluring performance on the track ‘Montego Bae’. Both Phoelix, who also served as the album’s producer, and Smino deliver ear-wormy hooks on ‘Window’ and the posse cut ‘Ace’ respectively, though Smino’s verse on the latter is a tad forgettable. There are other less memorable guest moments, such as Adam Ness’ chorus on ‘Prayer Song’, but these are few and far between, and often just fade into the background rather than sticking out as particularly mediocre.
Though Noname is clearly the star of the show on Room 25, it’s hard to ignore the instrumental work on the album, which is nothing short of magical. The organic instrumentation that’s foregrounded is a refreshing change of pace from most modern rap albums, with the grooves feeling that extra bit more natural. This is especially the case on the track ‘Blaxploitation’, which features a punchy, irresistible bass line.
It’s through the live drums in particular that Warner is able to show off her incredible musicianship. Even in the weirdest of rhythmic moments, such as the heavily syncopated beat on the chorus of ‘Regal’ or the uneasy feel of tracks like ‘Part of Me’ and ‘With You’, she’s able to lock in perfectly with the percussive grooves and dispense some killer flows. On ‘Prayer Song’, her rapping is so tightly woven into the beat her voice might as well be another percussion instrument.
The less hard-hitting instrumentals are no less captivating, with plenty of hypnotic synth lines coming through in the calmer tracks, such as the sunny, dream-like ‘Regal’. The gorgeously arranged string sections, however, are by far the most impressive instrumental feature on the album, as they float effortlessly above the rest of the band and compliment the chord progressions perfectly. Whether they’re providing an almost cinematic intro to ‘Windows’ or constantly shifting their melodic lines throughout ‘Don’t Forget About Me’, the strings on this album are absolutely enchanting.
Many of the album’s lyrical and musical ideas culminate beautifully in the closer, ‘no name’. As the title suggests, it’s a reflection on the meaning behind the rapper’s stage name, which is, as the track reveals, multifaceted. Warner alludes to the lack of recognition of victims of police brutality (“so many names don’t exist”) and the dangers of capitalism (“no name for private corporations”), before finishing her verse by stating: “when we walk into heaven, nobody’s name gon’ exist / Just boundless movement for joy, nakedness radiates.” With this, the fear of oblivion that is so present on ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ seems to wash away, as Yaw and Adam Ness enter one after the other with gorgeously-sung sections that echo Noname’s sentiments of self-love and self-empowerment. Sporting lavish accompaniment from the string section and some soothing keyboard chords, it’s the perfect way to close the album.
With all the current discourse surrounding the supposed decline of lyricism in hip-hop, it’s artists like Noname that prove the genre is not lacking in poetic genius. Whilst its core sound is decidedly less trendy than that of Telefone, the timely and deeply personal themes of the album, as well as her exceptionally charming personality, has resonated with so many listeners thus far, and will hopefully continue to do so.
Rating: 8.75 out of 10.