Few artists seem as uncomfortable with classification as Noname, whose very moniker is a rejection of identity. “I try to exist without binding myself to labels,” she said in a 2016 interview. “For me, not having a name expands my creativity. I’m able to do anything.”
On her new album, Room 25, which was released Friday, doing anything means rapping extensively, often to hilarious effect, about sex: On “Montego Bae,” she rhymes about being a “classy bitch” around a guy who “gon’ fuck me like I’m Oprah.” On “Self,” she jokes about her “pussy [writing] a thesis on colonialism.” The 26-year-old rapper has spoken in interviews about how she lost her virginity after releasing her first project, 2016’s Telefone, and on her latest effort, she’s unleashed and embraced her eroticism. “I feel like a lotta people are gonna be like ‘Ughhh.’ A lot of my fans… I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not,” she said in a recent Fader profile. “I still see people tweeting me sometimes like I’m this generation’s Lauryn Hill or I’m like the conscious version of different female rappers who don’t make the type of music that I make.”
Noname’s fears of fan backlash may be unwarranted: In the immortal words of Common, “conscious cats like sex too.” And beyond their vocals — Noname delivers her words in a smooth trickle, Cardi has her pugnacious swagger — Room 25 and Invasion of Privacy formally have little in common. Unlike Invasion, Room 25 is constructed like an artifact of hip-hop’s pre-streaming past. It’s bereft of radio-friendly singles, splashy features and dalliances with disparate regional stylings. Its 11 songs clock in at a tight 35 minutes, neither gaming the streaming system nor making a point of going the other way. In other words, it’s a modest throwback: the rare modern album that is primarily concerned with artistry rather than buzz or commercial success —
But wait. What’s going on here? I just came dangerously close to using the word “pure.” Falling into that kind of value judgment can happen when discussing Chicago-born poet-turned-rappers who spit over jazz samples. It can happen when discussing female rappers, too. All of which is probably the reason Noname wanted to align herself with, rather than against, Cardi B in the first place: Though Noname has been a critical darling thus far in her young career, as a woman in rap whose music could also easily be interpreted as “conscious,” she faces a double jeopardy when it comes to her identity being put in a box. Historically, each classification has been perceived in opposition to another — women rappers vis-à-vis other women rappers; conscious rappers vis-à-vis gangster or mainstream rappers — largely to the detriment of the artists in question. Debates over nebulous concepts like authenticity and singularity subordinate the music and force listeners to take sides. By downplaying the differences between someone like her and Cardi, she’s preemptively pushing back against those familiar narratives.
At this very moment, a feud between hip-hop’s top ladies, Cardi and Nicki Minaj, is overshadowing what’s arguably a golden age for women in the genre, where there are more career models and paths through the industry than ever before. And the beef seems to be less about any one transgression than it is about the mythical notion that only one woman can prevail in hip-hop. (In an Instagram post after the altercation, Cardi accused Minaj of threatening to withdraw public support for artists who worked with Cardi; her allegations echo complaints Remy Ma made about Minaj following the height of their feud last year.) The war’s origins are hazy; you could just as easily argue that it began with Foxy Brown vs. Lil Kim as with Nicki’s “Swish Swish” verse.
The zero-sum-game perspective is also vaguely reminiscent of past decades’ debates over “realness” in hip-hop. Rather than appreciate the genre for its varied forms, purists have squabbled over the merits of rap that was politically-minded versus rap that was street-minded, polarizing fans into one camp or the other. Fortunately, the latter battles seem to be mostly over: The walls between “high” and “low,” however artificial they were, have been largely torn down, and the insurgent generation of rappers has all but blown up the form. But as the recent Cardi-Minaj scuffle shows, the former battles still aren’t a relic of the past.
Which is a shame, because on Room 25, Noname proves herself to be among the most talented rappers working — male, female or other. She’s a virtuoso writer who can inhabit multiple personas and effectively tell a variety of stories. And her primary skills on the mic form a rare combination: She’s both dexterous and tender. She shifts from one mode to the next across Room 25’s third and fourth song, “Prayer Song” and “Window,” and it sounds like a dark chase followed by a warm lullaby. Across the album, the shifts are seamless, but never does it feel like she’s following anyone’s playbook but her own.
Noname has so far avoided bouts with competitors by keeping a distance from hip-hop’s mainstream — she self-releases music without a label — and by being low-key and introspective in her public presentation. It seems unlikely that that will change: Her artistic world feels much farther removed from Cardi’s than, say, Cardi’s is from Minaj’s. Instead, Noname offers the women of hip-hop’s future a model to overcome the narratives typically forced on an artist like her — all the while infusing one of rap’s longstanding stylistic traditions with a new vitality. Noname, for now, seems content in her own lane. “I have to focus on the part of me that I’m trying to feed,” goes the chorus of “Part of Me.” “I can’t pretend I’m not myself.” Noname is focused on her own path; fans would be well served following her wherever she takes us.