Noname's newest album is a multi-angled exploration in understanding Noname as an artist and in understanding ourselves.

noname photo by steph catsoulis for my spilt milk
Noname at Buku 2018, by Steph Catsoulis

Noname is masterfully ambiguous and undefinable, but on her new album, Room 25, listeners watch as she plays with the concept of defining herself anyway. She is born out of Chicago’s open mic scene and is an original blend of spoken word, hip-hop, and lullaby. Her sophomore album is a whimsical journey through her own self-exploration, one listeners feel like they are experiencing right alongside her.

Her stage persona—"Noname”— universalizes and muddies her concept of self. Her name is self-negating but a badge of honor at the same time, and as listeners we get the glimpses of her self she allows us to see. On Room 25, Noname crafts a hall of mirrors in which we see parts of ourselves and parts of those who look like her reflected in the pieces of herself that she gives us. This first track, “Self,” begins with the lines:

Maybe this the album you listen to in your car
When you driving home late at night
Really questioning every god

Her use of “you” welcomes us into her musings on self and the world. It is an invitation into vulnerability so that we can take this journey with her and feel safe in our confusion. The lyrics are matched by a calming beat. It is an inevitable beginning for this adventure.

“Self” welcomes us warmly, while the second track, “Blaxploitation,” shows listeners that her journey toward self-discovery is one that includes historical baggage and a fight for freedom. Here, she speaks more narrowly, specifically facing her black audience and speaking to them directly. She reminds them that this art is for them first, and not every part of this album is made for every listener.

From here, Noname brings her listeners in close with “Prayer Song,” which begins with a lengthy instrumental opening into a late night soul jam where we see Noname herself reflected. It feels less as though we’re supposed to recognize ourselves, and more like we are simply supposed to see Noname. Her tone is hushed, and we feel like we’re listening to a personalized, handwritten note being read aloud to us by its author. It feels like it is us and her and nobody else in the world.

Listeners watch Noname crack herself open, inviting us to crack ourselves open as well. On “Ace” she raps, "I’m just writing my darkest secrets," and there is safety in admitting this. Existential reflection can be a dangerous journey to begin alone, but here, we walk it with her honestly. On this album, she builds a narrative that keeps listeners eagerly following in her steps. She is our tiptoeing tour guide, bringing us into brief darkness, then bringing us back into light--a lesson in how we might later guide ourselves out of uncertainty on our own.

Noname is not simply guiding the listener through herself and ourselves as we currently are, but also through the possibilities of our potential selves, adding a sense of wonder and mystery. There seems to be little concern with looking backwards, only a focus on lighting a candle for the present moment and the steps immediately in front of us. Many artists attempt to evaluate self, but few do it with the same wonder and delicate forgiveness.

The invitation to join her that she implicitly extends to the listeners is explicitly extended to the artists who contribute features on Room 25. The songs feel like they belong as much to those featured as they do to Noname and rest comfortably within the album because they are so clearly the result of legitimate collaboration and partnership in the their creation. The features model the relationship listeners feel with her, one in which exploring ourselves includes exploring each other and sharing the vulnerable spaces we create.

The final song on the album is titled “no name,” which circles back to the first track “Self,” with a self that now has a name. The first minute and a half is instrumental, then the song turns into a reflection on her name, her self, and her essence as a performer. It is Noname circling all the mirrors back inward, and listeners have all sides of Noname that she’s given us to this point, and all sides of ourselves until this point. It is a beautiful culmination that can only exist exactly where it does on the album. Every song is calculated and necessary, and “no name” couldn’t have come any sooner than it does. The song fades out quietly with piano, and we leave as gently as we entered, but now with a self that feels more defined and more wholly contextualized with the world around it. We will never fully know Noname, or ourselves, but we feel slightly closer in our attempts.