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Noname, Elton

  • Sylvee 25 South Livingston Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

Chicago rapper Noname is at once reserved and relentless. Info/tix

Photo by Chantal Anderson.

Photo by Chantal Anderson.

By all accounts, Fatimah Warner (who performs as Noname) should be everywhere we look. By the age of 25, the Bronzeville native (now based in Los Angeles) had made an appearance on Chance the Rapper's mixtape Acid Rap, another on The Coloring Book, appeared with him on SNL, worked with Mick Jenkins and Saba and renowned producers like Phoelix and Cam O'bi, and released her much-anticipated debut mixtape, the precocious but distinctly unprecious Telefone, in 2016, to widespread critical acclaim.

That said, she keeps a relatively low profile—fitting, considering she chose a name that implies both anonymity and a refusal to be categorized. Given the prevailing pop-culture equation, where fame equals exposure equals fiscal and commercial success, it's a feat for an artist to break out while exuding such modesty. But despite her best efforts, her rise to renown has been meteoric. She puts out albums without a label, on her own dime, and Telefone (still available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp) funded the execution of her sophomore effort, last September's lush, self-assured Room 25.

It took two years for production and recording, practically an eternity in the streamlined production schedule of many hip-hop artists. And it shows—Room 25 carries with it a distinct sense of arrival, of taking up space. As on Telefone, Noname's spoken-word roots shine through; Warner got her start performing spoken word poems at the YOUMedia Program for Young Creatives in Chicago. The album is rife with social commentary, and it seems no one and nothing is spared: structural racism, insipidity, the myriad double-standards of America. But, for Warner, the personal is also political, and Room 25 centralizes her own narrative, her own understanding of the world as a young, black woman in America. Beneath her vocals are the uncomplicated beats, steadily funky bassline, and smooth key work of Phoelix, reminiscent of The Roots' Do You Want More?!!!??! and some of the more R&B-tinged moments on Solange's A Seat at the Table.

There is a more reserved, almost effortless quality to Noname's delivery on Room 25 but it is nonetheless unapologetic and insistent, bordering on relentless; she delivers many of her lines until you can almost hear her running out of breath. She's of the most interesting lyricists in recent memory, and what is perhaps most impressive about Warner's songwriting is her ability to hold two truths in equal measure, even if they appear on their face to be irreconcilable. On "Window," Warner both maligns a previous fuckboy with one breath—"The way you struggling to love yourself / Believe me, that's karma / You want a nasty bitch, psychiatrist / That cook like your mama/ And all you got was me-me-me"—and wishes him well the next: "But I love you even though we're not meant to be / I still love you/ I hope you find everything that you want / And she loves you."

"Blaxploitation," which samples both grooves and dialogue from two films of said genre, The Spook Who Sat By The Door and Dolemite, contains both no-nonsense certainty ("It's not a matter of color / Freedom is everybody's business") and a questioning as to what the future may hold. "Who wrote the movie to America?" Warner asks, then follows up with assurance: "It's still coming soon." —Katie Hutchinson