Noname claims her Chicago title

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Noname claims her Chicago title

Photo Courtesy of Room 25

Photo Courtesy of Room 25

Photo Courtesy of Room 25

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What is a rapper with no name? Is saying, “All I am is everything and nothing at all,” a call back to Lauryn Hill? Whether she’s the new Hill or not, she’s the only Noname. Everything and nothing at all? She is an assemblage of all her experience, relationships, and environments–everything, yet nothing at all. Would a no- name rapper rap about herself, the Self, or something else? She’d prove to you she can really rap, though. “And you thought a b*** couldn’t rap, huh? Maybe this your answer for that…”

South Side Chicago rapper, Noname (Fateema Warner) opens her poetic, jazzy, blues-infused, sophomore album, “Room 25,” with the track, “Self,” where she sets the tone for the album. An album exploring, revealing, contradicting and making peace with itself, where Noname makes peace with herself. Noname places her identity on display with a series of open ended questions that are answered in their asking, assuring us that she is questioning everything right along with us. She feels the soul in the questions, the uncertainty that comes with poetic vulnerability. The album is not for the late night hot-box, or to prove a point about her ability to rap; the album, as “Self ” tells us, is for her.

A sample from the blaxploitation film, “Dolemite,” begins the track, “Blaxploitation,” which explores political centrism and the narcissism of being apolitical in our current moment creating the fastest, funkiest beat on the album. Hers is point exemplified by the sampled quote, “Revolution was never meant to be easy… It’s not a matter of color | Freedom is everybody’s business.”

At the end of the track she samples the character Pretty Willie from the 1973 film “The Spook Who Sat By The Door,” who rails against allegations of his racial “passing,” insisting that he will likely die because he is black. This sample on passing is from a film about revolution and espionage in Chicago and leads into “Prayer Song,” a track that flows like if Kendrick Lamar’s “Sherane” was a political poem. A biting anthem of Chicago’s notorious violence, corruption and the fears of black mothers have of seeing their children on the local news. The anger and fear in “Prayer Song” then leads to “Window”, a track with dreamy, old-Hollywood love story strings and muted piano keys that crescendo into Noname’s trademark soft-rhyming.She quickly processes through a relationship, coming to terms with hurt, betrayal and the endurance of love. Noname wrestles with how love exists alongside pain, and concludes with the Chicago artist Pheolix encouraging her to “quit looking out the window, go find yourself.”

“Don’t Forget About Me,” “Part of Me,” “With You,” and “no name” make up my favorite tracks from the middle and end of the album. In the first, she pleads her mother to not forget about her when she dies. But what causes her death? Police violence (being black), male violence (being a woman), mental illness (lack of access to adequate medical care and hospitals), or something else entirely? Noname does not say, but she knows her body is fragile, and calls out to her mother, whispering for her not to forget her when she’s gone. “Part of Me” again features a guest appearance by Phoelix, who speaks for Noname when he sings of her need to focus on herself, the parts of her she wants to focus on, and how to avoid becoming someone who is not her. The conversation of identity wrapped up in relationships continues in her smooth rhymes, pseudo-scats, soft rapping over jazz instrumentals and symphonic, ethereal sounds. “With You” is the love letter to the listener, her former lover, future lover, lonely self, and the apathetic acceptance of all that surrounds her and abides within her. Finally, “no name” concludes the album with a reminder of all the no- names that are forgotten to history. This short track reminds us of the people whose identities are lost to history, while acting as an exhortation for us to cherish the mundanity and importance of our fleeting and temporary moments, both together and alone. Noname tells us on this track that she is changing, she remembers her upbringing in Englewood, her fame in LA, her rising star and falling body. Noname’s album is a rare gem of truth and honesty over sounds that genuinely complement her vocals.

“Room 25” is one of the most obvious arguments against separating the art from the artist in recent memory. This album deals with questions of living a private life in the public eye. It examines life as a series of interactions with a world always encroaching, from the violence of the streets, the pain of memories, to the projections of future traumas and memories of former traumas, all along with the dings of social media. Is she Noname or the South Side? Is she the violence or victim binary the news tells us the South Side is? Noname’s album brings us closer to her, and we learn that she is confidently uncertain. She is the poet in possession of her mother’s future memory of her own absence. The follow up to her critically acclaimed 2016 album, “Telephone,” has had time to grow in our imagination, and yet those first lyrics on the early track keeps letting me know that this album is for her. About her, and more honestly, vulnerably, proudly and more confusing than on her first album. Noname is the best of the present state of Chicago hip-hop and rap at its most excellent.