Noname Is One of the Best Rappers Alive
Before the summer 2016 release of Telefone, the debut album that launched her to a quiet kind of stardom, Noname considered quitting rap.
“I used to care-give, so I probably would’ve went back to doing that,” she says. “Maybe would’ve got my nursing degree, and just become a nurse. That was the only other thing that I enjoyed doing.”
Music, at that point, wasn’t paying the bills: “I was only able to pay my rent through doing little one-off college shows and maybe a feature for $300 here and there,” she adds. “I was in the financial in-between of, ‘Should I continue to try to pursue this, or should I just get a job?'”
One of those one-off features, though, was for Chance The Rapper, her Chicago compatriot, on his breakout album Acid Rap in 2013. It’s a scene-stealing performance on a scene-defining full-length and, not long after, people were waiting for more from the quietly confident, rhythmically daring rapper.
When she dropped Telefone almost three years later, the impact was immediate. “I was financially stable; I was able to finally move out of Chicago, like I’d been wanting to move for a long time.”
Telefone was an instant, career-defining hit, and Noname took years to follow it up. Room 25, which comes out today, is an album that deals directly with her last album’s success. More than that, though, it’s a step forward from a precocious debut, an improvement on the formula, and a deepening of what made that album successful.
In 2016, Noname moved to L.A., where she’d recorded Telefone, and didn’t make much new music at first. Then an interesting thing happened: People just kept listening to Telefone.
Over the past few years, music seems to be accelerating, and that’s more apparent than anywhere else in hip-hop — currently the most popular genre in music, thanks to its streaming audience. There’s a major release nearly once a week now, ready to be obsessed over until the next big arrival. Telefone, against all odds, has developed into something rare in modern rap: a cult classic with staying power. Which means that Noname is still touring the album over two years after its release. When we talked, she was in Prague on a Europe leg of her tour.
“I played Coachella this year, which is crazy,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know many artists who have been able to like drop an album two years ago and then have Coachella hit them up to be like, ‘Yeah, we still give a shit.'”
Telefone is a warm-toned album. A snapshot of life in Chicago circa the mid-2010s, it’s joyful and tragic in equal measure. Its closing song, “Shadow Man,” finds Noname and guest rappers Smino and Saba planning out their own funerals, each with their own celebratory touches (“When I die, there’s 27 rappers at my funeral/Moses wrote my name in gold and Kanye did the eulogy”). It’s easy to see why Telefone struck a chord. The album does have one glaring problem now, though: It’s too short.
“That’s one of my biggest issues in terms of shows, that project only being, like, 30 minutes,” she says. “I don’t really have problems getting booked, but they don’t like to book me for less than an hour…I’ve done a lot of things here and there to try to finesse my way into a longer set.”
So, by the end of 2017, Noname started thinking about maybe recording some new music.
“I don’t make music for long periods of time and then when I do, I can make an album in like a month,” she says. Despite being in L.A., Noname didn’t look to any new producers to change her sound, opting instead to go back to the well that made Telefone the success it was: her familiar backing band, all flown out from Chicago. “I kinda need to be in a space where we’re all creating together,” she said. “I don’t even like to be sent beats. I really prefer to be locked in with instrumentalists if I can.”
The resulting album is Room 25. In many ways, it’s a doubling down on everything that makes Noname unique. It’s denser than Telefone, unafraid to get dark and complicated. The flows and rhyme patterns are even harder to keep up with on first listen. “The cadences aren’t always following the drums, you know?” she says. “Sometimes I’m rapping and writing more to melody than I am to drums, the way most rappers do.”
If there was any expectation that she’d follow her collaborator Chance The Rapper into the pop world, it’s put to rest on Room 25. The album’s biggest difference from its predecessor isn’t its sound, but how personal it is. If Telefone was the story of a young Chicago everywoman (who happened to have supernatural rapping skills), Room 25 is about Noname, and Noname alone.
“When I put out Telefone, I was in a very different place in my life. My responsibilities were drastically less than the things I’m responsible for now,” she says. “Telefone feels very youthful and bubbly to me. This is a lot more serious than the last one.”
Room 25 is about the years after Telefone, when Noname spent nearly two years living out of hotel rooms (the title of the album is a nod to this lifestyle and the age she was at the time). “That was just a crazy year for me,” she says. “I was making a lot, thousands of dollars that I had never seen or thought I would ever accumulate. Like, I had a savings account. I had sex for the first time in my life that year.”
“I say the word ‘pussy’ probably eight times in this new album, which is so much for me” she says, laughing. “I was playing around with being vulgar and playing around with being braggadocious. I was able to find this new security within myself. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. I didn’t go, ‘I gotta make a grown and sexy album.'”
As a diaristic piece of art from one of rap’s most promising stylists, Room 25 is easily Noname’s most confident work to date — a tall order, given Telefone’s self-assurance. That confidence, though, doesn’t come without some anxiety. “Probably my biggest fear is that Telefone was a fluke,” she says. “I have this fear that they’ll be like, ‘We knew she wasn’t that good.'”
As soon as the album starts, though, any of those fears are put to rest. “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” she repeats on album opener “Self,” in the smirking tone of someone who knows just how talented they are.
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