Two Christmastimes ago, in the middle of Chance the Rapper’s second headlining performance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, a lesser-known rapper made her entrance from stage left. She had an odd charisma about her — wide-eyed yet totally in control, her flow somewhere between a rambling voicemail and a known-by-heart prayer. “I know my God,” she rapped, suddenly breaking into a smile that made her seem to glow with some inner light. It did not seem like she was playing to the cameras. She was playing to the heavens, if anywhere, or maybe just to herself.
Like Chance, she is an emcee from Chicago: Her name is Fatimah Warner, but she makes music under the moniker Noname, and on Friday she released a fantastic and free-spirited new album called Room 25 (her proper debut, which she self-funded and released independently). Noname, who is 26, got into slam poetry before she really got into hip-hop (“I started watching a lot of old Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube and got really obsessed with it,” she recently told The Fader), and her chatty, dexterous cadence makes her songs feel sometimes more like spoken word than rap. But no matter: Her creative ethos, like her stage name, is all about refusing to define herself in any fixed way. “I try to exist without binding myself to labels,” she said in 2016, right after the release of her excellent inaugural mixtape, Telefone. “For me, not having a name expands my creativity. I’m able to do anything. Noname could potentially be a nurse, Noname could be a screenwriter. I’m not limited to any one category of art or other existence, on a more existential level.”
Noname has this come-again? flow that sometimes makes it difficult to grasp everything she’s saying on the first or third or fifth listen, but in time her lyrics reveal themselves like generous secrets. There’s an intimacy to her music, both in what she reveals about herself and the people around her. “Unorthodox paradox in a pair of Docs, with an overbite,” is how she describes her younger self. But her view is more panoramic than solely personal: “I’m afraid of the dark, blue and the white / Badges and pistols rejoice in the night,” she spits on one of Telefone’s most affecting and evocatively titled songs, “Casket Pretty.” She’s tired of feeling like her light could be snuffed out at any time, tired of seeing acquaintances at funerals, tired of “too many babies in suits.”
Even when times are tough, there’s a contagious optimism to Noname’s music. The greatest villains in her rhymes are her own internal demons, and her songs are attuned to the difficulties — and the rewards — of personal growth. One of the best songs on Telefone is “Reality Check,” in which she weighs her own struggles with anxiety, shyness, and perfectionism against the worries of her ancestors. “Granny gonna turn up in her grave and say, ‘My granny really was a slave for this? All your incomplete similes and pages ripped?’” And so she finishes the verse, the song, and the rest of the album, its very existence a testament to the wildest dreams of those who came before her. “You are powerful beyond what you imagine,” another voice reminds her on the chorus. “Just let your light glow.”
A year and a half ago, Noname moved away from Chicago for the first time. Much of Room 25 tells the story of this transition. It’s a coming-of-age story: a record about balancing wanderlust with a sense of home, about honoring where you come from but not honoring it so much that you never leave. “Quit looking out the window,” a Greek chorus of backup singers tells her. “Go find yourself.”
She ended up in Los Angeles, a place that fills her with simultaneous wonder and confusion. On “Ace,” her voice is giddy with the feeling of moving to a new place overflowing with new experiences: “Saying vegan food is delicious, like just wait and just hear me out!” Smooth, hazy, and sometimes jazz-inflected beats — punctuated by sweeping strings and the occasional plink of a toy piano — envelop her words like benevolent smog. But she senses an air of melancholy and never-enoughness in her new ZIP code, too. “L.A. be bright but still a dark city,” she raps on the introspective “Prayer Song,” “so come get your happy and your new titties.”
The past few years have marked a sexual awakening for Noname; she told The Fader that she did not lose her virginity until she was 25: “purely insecurity, purely like, I’m too afraid to be naked in front of somebody.” Music has granted her a sense of confidence, though, and that evolution shines through on Room 25. “Fucked this rapper homie now his ass is making better music,” she spits on “Self,” the album opener. “My pussy teaches ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.” Some people might say it is impossible to hear a smile. I would counter with Noname’s delivery of this entire song.
The most powerful moment on Room 25 is “Don’t Forget About Me,” a muttered, late-night confession of a song that finds a rapper who often sounds so joyful about being alive suddenly grappling with the inevitability of her own death. “I know everyone goes someday,” she whispers, “I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay / But if I have to go I pray my soul is still eternal and my mama don’t forget about me.” By the end of the record, though, she’s arrived at a place of profound acceptance, as though she’s in touch with a greater truth. “Cuz when we walk into heaven, nobody’s name gonna exist,” she says, finding peace in the thought. She’s talking about transcendence, but it’s not so different from the feat her music pulls off: In describing her own hopes and fears so intimately, she stumbles upon universal truths, turning nobodies into everybody.