“Room 25” is only the debut album by Chicago rapper Noname. Based on the huge amount of press swirling around her 2016 mixtape “Telefone,” it would be easy to think the 26-year-old rapper has been in the game for a while.
And based on the sheer quality of “Room 25,” it becomes even easier to assume Noname is an established name. Because “Room 25” is a stirring examination of the often sexist portrayal of women in hip-hop, the kind that can only come from a woman in hip-hop, all set over jazzy instrumentation recalling Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah.”
Yeah. “Room 25” is that good.
In the album’s first track, “Self,” Noname opens the discussion of feminism in rap early. Even the most passive listener of hip-hop music is probably well aware of the ways in which rappers often, unfortunately, reduce women to nothing more than their sexuality; or, as Noname says it, “n****s only talk about money and good p***y.”
But Noname isn’t one to allow herself to be reduced to such a crass level. She says she’s more than that: “My p***y teachin’ ninth grade English./ My p***y wrote a thesis on colonialism/ in conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus.”
She’s saying that, even if other rappers reduce her to nothing more than her sexuality, she can still accomplish more than them, using the same language that they do.
“And y’all still thought a b**** couldn’t rap, huh?” she laughs.
It could be easy to criticize Noname for using the same sort of base language used by the rappers she’s criticizing. However, I think it’s by using the same language in the same way, she’s best able to illustrate its misogyny.
But this isn’t an album that’s only about feminism. Noname has many lofty goals she seems to want to solve through her velvet smooth voice and a seriously impressive flow, one built on mind-bending internal rhyme schemes that make her use of language some of the best in modern rap.
Noname takes major influence from 1970s funk on the track “Blaxploitation,” a track where she breaks down the ways in which black culture is often ripped off for the purpose of white entertainment or simply white convenience.
“Your mammy stay on the south side,/ She paid to clean your house, power of Pinesol, baby,/ She the scrub tub lady” she spits in the second verse, saying black women in today’s society often can’t rise above their poverty. She gets more biting as she continues, “She that naked b**** in the videos, that drunk club lady/ Immortalized all ’80s and then she real, real nasty./ Keep the hot sauce in her purse and she be real, real blacky.”
It’s a scathing take down of the perceptions of black culture in the United States, mocking the (unfortunately prevalent) idea that black people are always less than white people.
Noname’s biting lyrical take-downs of American and hip-hop culture continue through the rest of the record, but something must be said of the record’s instrumentation.
As I said before, the mostly live instrumentation on the album pulls major inspiration from some of the jazziest, funkiest records of recent memory with incredible results.
Tracks like “Prayer Song” are striking in their arrangements, using the darker jazzy sounds found on “To Pimp a Butterfly” to great effect, making a powerful backing to Noname’s incredible lyrics.
Sometimes the instrumentation becomes more fun and danceable, but in a way not often seen in recent memory. “Montego Bae,” a love song struck through with feminist ideals, bears a striking resemblance to bossa nova classic “The Girl from Ipanema,” which is not at all the sort of thing I was expecting to hear. But I loved it.
That truly sums up my feelings on “Room 25.” I wasn’t expecting lyrics so stirring, filled with rhyme schemes so amazingly complex, backed by truly great jazz and funk instrumentation.
I wasn’t expecting to hear anything this good. But I loved it.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Album: ‘Room 25’
Best Tracks: ‘Self,’ ‘Blaxploitation,’ ‘Montego Bae’