In some genres, not releasing any new music for two years after your breakthrough release is normal behavior. For a rapper, it’s highly unorthodox. Well, maybe more rappers should follow Noname’s lead. The Chicago slam poet turned goddess MC has spent the two years since Telefone, her remarkable debut mixtape, quietly concocting the follow-up. She moved to LA, but she’s hardly been seeking the Hollywood spotlight. Instead it’s been a slow and steady grind leading up to Room 25, her long-awaited official debut album. (Feels more like a sophomore LP to me, but I’ll let Noname be the judge of that.)
Noname’s patience has been rewarded, both in feverish public anticipation and music that lives up to the hype. It feels odd to call a record as low-key as Room 25 spectacular, but the songs she and her collaborators have cooked up are truly special. Consider “Self,” the soulful groove that only pretends to ease you into the album while feeding you lines like, “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night, really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches.” It’s only a minute and a half long, but she makes the most of that time, spinning syllables into evocative images like so: “My pussy teaches ninth-grade English/ My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism/ In conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus/ And y’all still thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?”
Elsewhere she trades the braggadocio for searing vulnerability, as on “Window,” a string-laden swoon about coping with a breakup: “I knew you never loved me, but I fucked you anyway.” On the floaty and minimalistic “Don’t Forget About Me,” alongside stories of fans who told her Telefone saved their life, she admits, “The secret is I’m actually broken,” before bringing back some levity: “Somebody hit D’Angelo, I think I need him on this one.” You can feel the thought that went into every word.
No syllable is wasted, and they’re scattered across an exciting variety of sounds. The nasty funk groove “Blaxploitation” feels like the early stages of a tornado. On “Ace,” the all-star team of Noname, Saba, and Smino seems to be backed by an R&B vocal group comprising ghosts. “Part Of Me” is a dance with agile guitar notes that spill out of the speakers like a Slinky tumbling down steps. The skittering “Prayer Song” recalls Radiohead and late-’90s IDM even as it keeps live-band jazz-rap as its home base. And on closing track “no name,” what begins as a spare piano ballad blooms into one of the more gorgeously arranged rap songs in recent memory.
In terms of both lyrical and instrumental prowess, it’s perhaps the most musically accomplished rap record of the year, but it’s no celebration of technique for technique’s sake. All of that skill has been deployed in service of brilliant, moving, versatile songwriting. I’m excited to plumb the depths of this record for many weeks and years to come. Won’t you join me? Enter Room 25 below.
Room 25 is out now.