by Izzi Bavis
[NOTE: I originally wrote this in June, 2019. There is a brief reflection at the end which was written in February, 2020.]
It took me back to riding the Red Line on a freezing February night in Chicago. I was instantly counting the stops to Howard and looking out the window at the homes rushing past. I was 17 again, listening to Noname and pretending that nothing would ever change.
I was hooked by her jazz influenced melodies, her hard hitting lyrics and her performance after seeing her at Metro Chicago in 2017. Telefone was a masterpiece (check out my review of that album here) and I was sitting on the edge of my seat after she announced at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2018 that her next album was on its way. Released in September 2018, Room 25 consists of eleven songs with eight features, similar to Telefone. Themes of addiction, love, Chicago and family span across the two records, but continuity does not equate to a good album. Room 25 is underwhelming and seems like a worse version of Telefone.
The opening track, “Self,” transported me to 2017 and initially excited me. Noname raps, “Maybe this the album you listen to in your car when you driving home late at night / Really questioning every god, religion, Kanye, bitches.” I saw my adolescence in these lyrics and I anticipated that Room 25 would be an in depth exploration of Noname from the past two years.
I wanted to will this album into being spectacular, but after listening to it over and over again I still felt like it was trying to be Telefone. I was searching for something that wasn’t there. This isn’t to say that the album doesn’t have complex messages and artistry, it just wasn’t anything new.
Look at “Don’t Forget About Me.” Noname talks about wanting to be remembered by her family and friends when she moves to L.A. and when she inevitably dies. Morbid yet unoriginal, these themes are seen in “Shadow Man” on Telefone, where Noname depicts her demise and observing her own funeral. Her flow is beautiful in both tracks, but wasn’t enough for me to love “Don’t Forget About Me.”
I struggled to want to listen to Room 25, especially since Telefone meant so much to me. Despite it not being a great album, I do love some of the tracks; “Montego Bae” and “Ace” captivated me like “Yesterday” and “Bye Bye Baby” did. “Montego Bae” opens with Ravyn Lenae chanting the hook and her voice seems distorted as if she’s at the end of a tunnel. In contrast, Noname comes in for the second verse and her voice is clear, like she is sitting next to you on the beach spitballing ideas for the track. “Montego Bae” is what I thought the rest of Room 25 was going to be like: a newer sound that contains all the elements of Telefone without seeming like a repeat.
“Ace,” featuring Smino and Saba, who are long time friends of Noname and fellow midwestern rappers, is another song that was worth the wait. This song blew up when the three musicians performed it on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon show in Jan. 2019 to promote the album. “Ace” struck a nerve with me. The lyrics “Movin’ to LA, now I’m sippin on Sunny D,” hurt. Noname, an artist that built her career on being from Chicago, left the midwest for California just like Kanye and other famous Chicago musicians did. When I found out that she moved I was disappointed. Chicago rappers are always rapping about Chicago and what is like to grow up there, but more times than not they leave. From L.A., Noname is still capitalizing off of singing about Chicago. I understand not everyone can stay, not everyone can be Chance the Rapper and dedicate time and money to the city. But it didn’t sit well with me when Noname promoted her album with two shows in Chicago over New Years and then returned to her new community in L.A. I think letting Noname go was the hardest.
Despite its shortcomings, Noname’s voice and narrative are not lost on this album. She tells her story no matter what and sticks by it. Noname is real about her life, mistakes and challenges. Although I was unimpressed with Room 25, I still stand by the fact that Noname is a brilliant and purposeful musician. I am excited to see what she has in store for Chicago’s rap scene, even if she’ll be in L.A. for now on.
I wrote this in the summer of 2019 before Noname started her Book Club and announced that she is taking a break from music. She tweeted that she didn’t want to keep creating and performing for a predominantly white audience. Since November 2019, she has dedicated her time to Noname’s Book Club and curating a library of black writers. She has inspired people to stop supporting Amazon and to focus on their community. When I originally wrote this, I was writing from a place of privilege. I’m a white woman from just outside of Chicago — I will never be able to understand Noname’s experiences as a black woman growing up on the South Side of Chicago. There are inequalities in Chicago that don’t affect me or that I even benefit from. Noname’s music meant a lot to me as a young person growing up near Chicago, but ultimately her music is true to her and she isn’t writing for me, she is writing for her community. As soon as she felt that the music scene wasn’t a safe space anymore she moved and created a new community. Through her work in Noname’s Book Club, she is able to continue telling her story, just this time through a different medium. Noname is still connecting people through art, not her art, but art nonetheless. Noname continues to give back to Chicago and her fans even from LA, and for those reasons I know that Noname’s legacy is one grounded in service and justice. For a list of the books for the month of February, click here.