On Her Debut Album, Noname Is a Sly Hip-Hop Maverick

Noname “Room 25”

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Jon Pareles
, New York Times
Noname “Room 25”

“Everybody think they know me/Don’t nobody really know me,” Noname raps quietly in “Window” on “Room 25,” her official debut album after releasing a free mixtape in 2016, “Telefone.” If so, it’s because 26-year-old Fatimah Warner presents so many intertwined personas: family member, woke African-American woman, lover, boaster, worshipper, Chicagoan, Los Angeles transplant, rapper, singer, poet.

Noname has invented herself as a nonchalant counterbalance to mass-market hip-hop. In “Self,” the brief track that opens the album, she taunts, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap?” but her delivery is far from pushy or confrontational. She’s above it all, laughing at how nonsensical that idea was.

While million-streaming hits reduce themselves to the barest minimum of brittle notes and syllables, plus the maximum of barking self-promotion, Noname offers density and abundance instead. She has a lot on her mind as a person, citizen and performer; she strives to encompass it all, including what she knows and what she doesn’t.

Her lines of lyrics are long, fast, polysyllabic, intricately rhymed, packed with convoluted allusions and delivered with melodic inflections — her own extension of the rapping virtuosity of the 1990s, ambitious but never bombastic. The music, almost all of it produced by her invaluable collaborator Phoelix, is filled with the chord progressions of jazz and R&B, elaborately casual beats that always seem to be taking their time, and glimmering keyboards and warm synthesizer tones that echo Stevie Wonder. Even when the material is looped, it sounds like it’s played by people, not machines.

Noname emerged from Chicago, where her poetry drew the attention of Chance the Rapper, another embracing, positive-thinking, faith-based performer. She was a guest on his 2013 mixtape, “Acid Rap,” and his hugely popular 2016 album, “Coloring Book” — enough exposure to make many people pay attention to Noname’s own “Telefone” mixtape. She has since moved to Los Angeles, but like Chance, she is a rare rapper who still operates fully independent of labels and sponsorships, financing her own recordings and videos. “Labels asked me to sign/Say my name don’t exist,” she raps in “no name.”

What she wants to say on “Room 25” is complex: thoughts on community, sensuality, mortality and self-determination. The music of “Prayer Song” hovers with electric-piano chords and wordless backup voices; the lyrics are a kaleidoscopic, free-associative vision of Los Angeles, touching on lust, violence, gentrification, plastic surgery, masculinity, conspicuous consumption and religion. In “Blaxploitation,” a brisk funk bass riff carries sound bites about revolution and Noname rapping at top speed about systemic racism, stereotypes and constant tension: “I’m struggling to simmer down/Maybe I’m an insomni-black.”

She contemplates mourning and her own death over soothing strings in “Don’t Forget About Me,” and she prays for equilibrium and self-esteem in “Regal.” Over jazz guitar chords and drumming that races and lags, she examines a failed love affair in “With You”: “This is my happy ever suicide,” she raps. And lest things get too somber, in “Montego Bae” she fantasizes about a fling in Jamaica, over a track like a skewed bossa nova. And in “Ace,” which she shares with the quick-tongued rappers Smino and Saba, she mixes put-downs of other rappers with an even more defiant declaration: “Vegan food is delicious!”

Noname is a full-fledged maverick, but not an abrasive one. Phoelix’s production situates her in leisurely, atmospheric R&B, and there’s almost always the hint of a smile in her voice. But no one should mistake her soft, playful tone for submissiveness.

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