Six years ago, a handful of talented poets gathered together in a cramped room for Young Chicago Author’s WordPlay showcase. Some acts were people you’ve never heard of, and others were people you’d get to know soon, including a lanky 19-year-old named Chance the Rapper and an already celestial Jamila Woods. Another poet who took the stage hid behind a black bowler hat, which sat atop a head of cropped corkscrew curls. You probably won’t recognise her immediately in the choppy video that captures the events of that evening, but the wide-eyed innocence of her voice is one you’ve heard before.
“Happily, never dapper / Apathy, ever after / Laughing before the rapture,” she rhymes, reimagining Peter Piper’s tongue twister cadence. Her arms move awkwardly, like an orchestra’s conductor, as she instructs the crowd to finish her call and response: “La, la, la / La, la, la, la.” At 20 years old, she was already capable of commanding a crowd, even if beyond the longest-running open mic group for Chicago youth, she was relatively nameless.
Today, Noname arrives with her debut album, Room 25, where she veers away from the anonymity she used as a security blanket in the past, avoiding most press, photos, and visuals for her songs. Before removing the slur “gypsy” from her moniker in 2016, she told Chicago she considered her creativity “nomadic,” with the ability to make music that transcends genres. The album feels like the first time we’re getting a clear picture of Noname as an artist, its brushstrokes more concentrated and less abstract.
She’s always been an exhaustive storyteller – brimming with narrative-driven stanzas that life in Chicago has written for her – but now the story feels like it’s completely hers. Room 25 encompasses sounds and stories beyond the three-block-radius she was once confined to by her grandmother. We always knew Noname was a sophisticated lyricist, but now, she isn’t just relying on the characters around her. She’s the most important occupant of Room 25.
Noname, born Fatimah Warner, has had six years to do some living. A year after performing the WordPlay showcase in Chicago, she appeared on Chance’s 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap. The two careen around each other’s voices on “Lost,” recounting the tale of two druggy lovers. Noname raps about a love she does gymnastics for, only to denied reciprocity. “The empty bottled loneliness, this happiness you seek / The masochism that you preach,” she says. According to Chance, it was “the best guest verse [he’d] ever got from somebody.”
Over the next few years, she continued peeking in and out of features. On Chance’s “Warm Enough” and “Drown,” her flow seemed to be burdened by the city’s violence – a theme she continued to explore on her compact, 33-minute debut, Telefone. The mixtape showcases the best and worst versions of Chicago. “Diddy Bop” is a light-hearted compilation of ass-whippings, basement parties, and crisp sneakers, but “Casket Pretty” is the polar opposite of that. “All of my niggas is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city,” she sings on the hook. A baby coos in the background as Noname conjures an intense image: “Roses in the road, teddy bear outside, bullet to the right.”
With its tales of death and unplanned pregnancies, Telefone was reflective of the unpredictability of living in an impoverished sector of a big city: On one hand, this is home; on the other, scarcity is your only constant. There’s a lack of resources, a lack of money, and the only thing that feels abundant is the trauma associated with civilian PTSD. Still, with its undertones of blues and jazz, Telefone felt like the antithesis to Chicago’s contentious drill scene, a window into what life was like beyond Chicago’s warring nickname. “When I initially created it, I wanted it to feel like a conversation with someone who you have a crush on for the first time,” she said in a 2016 interview with The FADER. The mixtape shares the name of the childhood game Telephone and Noname’s withdrawn delivery ensures that there’s an amount of distance between her and her listeners, and the message is somewhat distorted by the time it gets to the last participant.
If her debut was proof she could generate a buzz of her own, Room 25 feels like she’s opened a door to a portal she didn’t know she possessed. On the album’s opening track, “Self,” she runs through a laundry list of who she thinks Room 25 will resonate with. Halfway through the 90-second song, she abandons the overthinking. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she says. “Nah, actually this is for me.”
It’s a declaration about how she’ll approach this album. Where Telefone felt rooted in community, Room 25 is a lesson in self-preservation – an account of one young rapper learning that in order to be present for those around her, she’s got to be present for herself. She raps with swagger, one a lot less understated than she has projected before. She raps: “My pussy teaching 9th grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”
Pussy? The word is nowhere to be found on Telefone, but Noname will say it twice more within the first two minutes of Room 25. Previously, thoughts of sex ended in a punchline, “Already fried the chicken, but leftovers was my inner thigh / Nah, I’m just playing,” she rapped on ““Forever.” Now, Noname isn’t joking about being provocative when she says “I know he eat me like I’m wifey,” a line from “Montego Bae” that’s followed by a pretty hilarious lyric about giving fellatio in Adidas sneakers. “I say ‘pussy’ like a thousand times on the album,” she said in a recent interview with The FADER. “I just was like, OK, now that my pussy is like this character that’s in the book, how do I colour [that story in]?”
In the interview, she attributed her sexual awakening to losing her virginity after touring Telefone. “My only reason for not having sex was purely insecurity, purely like, I’m too afraid to be naked in front of somebody,” she told the magazine. Insecurities aren’t present anywhere on Room 25, whether she’s rapping about her experiences in the bedroom or her place in the world.
Doses of social commentary make for some of the album’s most powerful moments. “Blaxploitation” drips in 70s flair, weaving together a montage of audio from various blaxploitation films, including 1975 classic Dolemite. One man says, “The revolution was never meant to be easy.” Another says, “Freedom is everybody’s business.” It deviates from the sing-a-long nature of her older songs, with a fast and exaggerated flow. When she raps, “Eating Chick-Fil-A in the shadows, that taste just like hypocrite,” she pronounces the long “I” in “hypocrite.” Using references ranging from minstrel shows to Hillary Clinton, Noname is taking a subgenre of film that was used to commodify the black experience and remaking it in her image, an apt choice of subject matter following the success of films like Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman this year.
But Noname isn’t just relishing in her newfound confidence; at points, she revisits the candor and vulnerability that made us fall in love with her music the first place. “Prayer Song”’s swirling production sounds like organised chaos, an appropriate backdrop for when she asks, “Why, oh why, my dick getting bigger / Does violence turn me on?” On “Don’t Forget About Me,” the rapper makes the switch from the narrator we’ve known her to be and becomes a main character, confiding in her listeners: “The secret is I’m actually broken,” she says over an infectious groove, the plucks of a guitar hopscotching behind her words. “Tell ‘em Noname still don’t got no money / Tell ‘em Noname almost passed out drinking / Secret is she really thinks it saves lives.” Though we still don’t know everything about Noname, the song leaves us feeling closer than we’ve ever felt to her. She’s asking those around her to remember her when she hasn’t even remembered herself.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.