Noname Is Spoken Word’s Last, Best Hope
Fatimah Warner wasn’t a music person as a kid. In a recent FADER profile, we learn that she grew up with her grandparents and that music wasn’t that big of a presence in her life through most of her childhood. The rapper known as Noname didn’t fall into rap through the sort of juvenile infatuation that so many of us have. Instead, she got involved in the music through the vaguely-adjacent world of spoken-word poetry. Her big eureka moment wasn’t anything to do with music, as such. It was in seeing slam poets on YouTube: “I started watching a lot of old Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube and got really obsessed with it. I was like, This is the most amazing fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”
That’s a lovely story, but even if you didn’t know that Noname was a young slam poetry devotee, you’d have it figured out minutes into Room 25, her casually masterful new self-released album. Noname does not do rap shit, and she does not operate on autopilot. Instead, she carefully works through imagistic ideas and arcane wordplay. Her intonation is pure spoken-word; you can hear her learning in the way she enunciates, the way she emphasizes syllables that most of us wouldn’t emphasize. And there’s something beautiful about it: This ridiculously gifted young artist who’s latched onto this out-of-mode time-capsule form and breathed new life into it.
I was never a slam-poetry fan, but I was a teenager in the ’90s, so it was just out there — this cool new thing that was dripping with literary promise, getting hyped up in thinkpiece after thinkpiece. It had a moment. It found its way into, for instance, the John Singleton movie Higher Learning. The 1998 independent film Slam was both a prison-redemption narrative and a kind of sports movie. The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York was a vital cultural hub; it’s where, for instance, MF DOOM worked out his new character after his brother Subroc’s death. Slam poetry kept going into the ’00s, too, and it had intersections with rap music. Mos Def hosted five seasons of Def Poetry Jam on HBO. J. Ivy had a verse on The College Dropout. Some underground rappers, like Sage Francis and Nessa, are also bigtime slam poets, to the extent that slam poets can be bigtime.
But to a completely passive observer like me, slam poetry always seemed like a hopelessly ’90s phenomenon, like Starter jackets or butt-cut hairdos or the word “electronica.” It’s too easy to make fun of, too easy to imitate the elocutions. So there’s something transformative about seeing a powerful young artist like Noname, someone whose love of the form is so pure and earnest and who has found ways to turn her gifts and enthusiasm into straight-up rap music.
Room 25 doesn’t sound like any other rap album. To me, the album it most immediately recalls is Digable Planets’ 1993 debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space). But it doesn’t sound like that album; it just has a similar sense of discovery, a wordy looseness. Noname’s delivery is both airy and conversational; she sounds like she’s artfully letting us in on the complicated divergences of her own brain. But every line is precisely worded and laid-out. And even when she’s flexing, she’s finding giddy, oblique ways to do it: “Fucked your rapper homie, now his ass is making better music / My pussy teaching ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”
Room 25 is a brief and compact album, only 35 minutes, but there’s nothing minor about it. Instead, Noname finds sharp and quizzical ways to get into — among other things — gentrification, racism, unfulfilling relationships, mortality, her own late-awakening sexuality, and how thrilling and disconnecting it can be to move to Los Angeles after spending your entire life in a very different city. Her voice is full of warmth and empathy, and even when she spends an entire verse rapping from the perspective of a racist killer cop, she resists the urge to turn him into a full demon and instead gets into the toxicity in his own upbringing: “They ain’t teach me how to cry, just shoot.”
Noname has these great ways of putting words together, of approaching topics sideways. Here, for instance, is how she talks about the mismanagement of Chicago: “Keep the hospitals overrun-run-run, Chicken Little / How my city gonna run off shits and giggles?” Here she is meditating on her own rap name: “No name for people to call small or colonize optimism / No name for inmate registries that they put me in prison.” Here she is, identifying the fucked-up and impossible standards of an ex: “You want a nasty bitch psychiatrist that cook like your mama / And all you got was me, me, me.” And plenty of her lines aren’t even about any one particular thing; they just broadly encompass a whole lot of thought and feeling: “Bad sleep triggered by bad government / Write a thinkpiece on the rap song, the new age covenant.”
Musically, too, she goes her own way. Noname worked with Chicago producer Phoelix on the entire album, and the sound is a full and organic thump, one made with live instruments that fade gracefully into the background. In the sound of Room 25, you can hear the interplay of live musicians, the delayed crack that can only come from a flesh-and-blood drummer. The loose expansiveness comes from jazz, and it finds the music in Noname’s spoken-word delivery. It makes for a simply gorgeous listening experience.
As it happens, Room 25 came out a week after another album from the loose Chicago peer group that produced Noname and peers like Chance The Rapper and Saba, whose 2018 Care For Me is as lush and emotional as Room 25. This album, though, is on a whole different trip. Joey Purp’s QUARTERTHING is the opposite of Room 25 in a lot of ways. It’s a noisy, lively party record from a street guy whose whole family spent time in the drug trade. On QUARTERTHING, Purp is less involved in his own internal monologue, more concerned with getting off some hard lines. But like Noname, he’s got a certain confidence that sets him apart — a real testament to the friend-group that nurtured these two vastly divergent artists. He embraces beats full of weird noises and sideways blurts. Some tracks draw on the omnipresent Atlanta trap music, but others pull sounds from Chicago footwork and house. The young Chicago R&B singer Ravyn Lenae, a longtime Noname collaborator who also appears on Room 25, sings a chorus. At the end of QUARTERTHING, wizened Wu-Tang eminence GZA shows up. And he’s doing slam poetry.
1. Pouya & J.I.D – “Tip Toe”
Pouya is a grimy young South Florida dirtbag, a fixture of the SoundCloud-rap world. J.I.D is an Atlanta boho-rap stantout, a protege of J. Cole. On paper, they come from opposite ends of the spectrum. And yet they make so much sense together.
2. Dro Fe & Valee – “Spondivits”
One of Valee’s great gifts: He can do athletic fast-rap and still sound like he’s half-asleep. He and Dro Fe, a South Texas native and budding streetwear mogul, should do more together; they’ve got a nice chemistry.
3. Roc Marciano – “The Horse’s Mouth”
I could listen to those strings for much, much longer than two minutes. And Roc Marciano could rap forever. Your product’s either good or it’s not.
4. Marlo – “Anything Goes” (Feat. Lil Baby)
These new Atlanta kids sound so fussy. And it works.
5. Swizz Beatz – “P.O.M.S. (Pistol On My Side)” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
I just like hearing Lil Wayne happy. I also like hearing those snares.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
What MGK did to Em pic.twitter.com/L48AWbvNZv
— AJ The Juiceman (@xPhenomenal1) September 14, 2018