You could almost be forgiven for not noticing Noname until now. Almost. She certainly made her name known back in 2013, with a breakthrough guest verse on fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper’s legendary mixtape Acid Rap. With just 30 seconds Noname Gypsy, her stage name at the time, tears into her verse dealing with everything from the psychological effects of a toxic hookup, to the dangers and self-destruction encouraged by the pharmaceutical pill poppin’ industry, and ending with a mic drop realization that “the only time he loves me is naked in my dreams”. The preeminent verse cemented her name forever in Chicago mixtape history, except she wouldn’t keep that name. In early 2016 in the months before her debut mixtape Telefone, she would drop the “Gypsy” from her name, citing a new awareness that her name could be considered racially insensitive to Romani people. She wouldn’t lose her momentum however, as Telefone was met with rave reviews for it’s warm melodies and thoughtful poetry.
But that isn’t enough for Noname. On her debut album Room 25 Noname reminds you that she may be Noname, but you’re going to know her name and know that she’s a damn good rapper. The album begins with the familiar comfortable melodies used on Telefone and humming, and Noname bursts into her silver-tongued spoken poetry flow she’s claimed so well, bragging about all the places you should listen to her album, bragging about her pussy’s accomplishments (teaching ninth-grade English and writing a thesis on colonialism). “And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh?” Noname taunts: if you somehow missed her on Acid Rap or Telefone, she isn’t going to let you ignore her anymore. Her delivery might be soft, but her words will cut you if you give her an opening. Noname commands her pace every time with her breakdown of syllables and singing through her pauses, it’s spokenword on her schedule.
Noname via Instagram
And she isn’t going to let you ignore Chicago either. No not Chiraq, not Trump’s Chicago that is used as as a scare tactic, but the real Windy city from Michigan Ave to Englewood, between Ashland and Damen, to the Bears and our problematic hometown hero Kanye. Noname has love for her city and feels the pain on every block, she turns these locations and ideas into the ink for her spoken word paintbrush to use. She understands that as much love she has for Chicago, the city is just as likely to reciprocate the love with pain. Gun violence and gentrification surround the warm smiles and cool breezes of our city. It’s unavoidable. One of her most poetic lines is on the ending track “Noname” a soulful hymn that reprises many of the album’s themes: “Welcome to Englewood and the trauma came with the rent. Only worldly possession I have is life, only room that I died in was 25”. She is reminiscing on the notorious neighborhood of Englewood that highlights the city’s gun violence epidemic, home of Derrick Rose and Chief Keef, Noname believes that in Englewood the trauma is just as promised and constantly breathing down your neck as your landlord asking for the rent on the 1st of the month.
Noname has since left the South Side for LA, a career move echoed by many others for networking reasons (Chance), for literal safety and legal reasons (Chief Keef), or a combination of the two. This move also weighs heavy on Noname, and she pauses to wonder if she abandoned her family, or if LA living is really for her. She raps about the pressures of the LA glamor, “Welcome to Beverly Hills, Welcome to Vicodin, I took the pills”, “I pray my mama don’t forget about me, I pray my grandma don’t forget about me”. It’s a heavy weight but Noname understands that she can’t be held down and she must follow her talent.
Photograph by Mark Horton / Getty
Noname breaks down many of her inner demons over lush, almost Christime-time, instrumentals all within a sweet-short 35 minutes, making the album an essential comfy listen for your windy autumn commutes. Saint Louis’ rising rapper Smino provides the highlight guest verse on “Ace”, inspired heavily by To Pimp A Butterfly and sounding like he picked up some cadence control lessons from Noname herself. It’s a great energetic verse where he rides the beat and sets up Noname and Saba to follow up and match his energy later in the song. My one criticism with the project is that the mixing can seem poor at the time, as in Noname’s spoken words can be drowned by the instruments and be hard to hear. The effect is consistent throughout the project and is too much of an impairment to be purposeful. Beyond that, Room 25 is a beautiful debut that ensures Noname won’t be a forgotten, not in Chicago, not in LA, not anywhere.
Highlight tracks: Self, Ace Ft. Smino & Saba, With You, No Name Ft. Yaw a& Adam Ness