This past week has been crazy for Chicago’s hip-hop scene. After years of anticipation, three major projects have been released. This is the same scene that produced now-global superstar Chance the Rapper, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the Windy City!
Noname Improves on “Lullaby Rap Music” on the Lean “Room 25”
“My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism,” says Chicago rapper extraordinaire Noname—tongue firmly in cheek—on “Self,” the opening track of her second album, “Room 25.” It’s just one of the endlessly quotable lines Noname tosses out with ease on her lean and relaxed sophomore outing. On a track by track basis, “Room 25” is easy listening, each song a laid-back journey through Noname’s thoughts. Taken as a whole, “Room 25” is a charming self-portrait of an artist who truly knows herself.
Born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, “Noname” has been a fixture of Chicago music for years now, first turning heads with a standout verse on the track “Lost” from Chance the Rapper’s 2013 “Acid Rap” mixtape. Noname’s talent has never been in question, but it was her first full project, 2016’s “Telefone” that really cemented her as a must-see solo act. At 10 songs and 34 minutes, Noname’s last project was an intimate and deeply-sad piece of music, an awesome album by anyone’s metrics.
Make no mistake, “Room 25” lives up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Aesthetically, Noname continues working in similar territory; the album sounds similar to other recent work from post-Chance Chicago artists, like, Saba’s “Bucket List Project” or Smino’s “blkswn.” This makes sense, considering that she’s still closely collaborating with producer Pholiex (who also provides vocals on standout tracks “Window” and “Part of Me”). On the features front, the aforementioned Saba and Smino show up on the track “Ace,” along with newcomer Adam Ness, who rounds out a few choruses here and there. Like on “Telefone,” Noname gives herself a lot of room to shine, keeping features to a reasonable quantities and never letting her listeners forget whose project they’re hearing.
But “Room 25” makes improvements to the “Telefone” formula on two major fronts: lyrics and instrumentation. Noname is still sharp as a knife throughout, but this time around she seems much more comfortable experimenting with perspectives that aren’t her own, rapping a verse as a racist cop on “Prayer Song” or an adoring fan on “Don’t Forget About Me.” Whether she’s waxing poetic about her own hypocrisy while eating Chick-A-Fila or resisting the temptations of hedonist L.A. culture, Noname’s bars signal an attempt to hold herself accountable the same way she’ll indict an unjust system. As she raps on “Montego Bay:” “And yes and yes I’m problematic too.”
Sonically, “Room 25” reflects a different shift, as Noname commits to instrumentals from a live orchestra. It’s a great choice, as the artist consistently tours with a full band and always sounds better over analogue instruments. The last time (I recall) a hip-hop record so fully embracing in-person instrumentals has to be Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece “To Pimp A Butterfly,” and, frankly to compare any album to TPAB is high praise in itself. Like Kendrick, Noname’s pivots to a far jazzier sound on her sophomore outing, an ambitious choice that pays off in full on “Room 25.”
The album gets better as it keeps going: just as “Room 25” is starting to settle into a rhythm, the second half disrupts and revitalizes the project. The seventh song, “Montego Bay,” is a charming detour, and “Ace” is an-almost posse cut overflowing with personality. Everything about “Part of Me” is lush and delightful. By the time the album ends you’ll be hungry for more—but after nearly a week of non-stop listening, I’m still chewing on a lot of these lyrics. A few day ago, Noname tweeted “I make lullaby rap music.” That feels right: Noname’s music is never abrasive. She really lets the listener in—a smart choice when there’s truth behind every bar.
Joey Purp Finally Delivers the Album We’ve Been Promised on “QUARTERTHING”
Ask any Chicago hip-hop fan if they’ve heard of Joey Purp and they’ll probably say yes. That’s for a number of reasons, but the main source of this reputation is from the high praise of his peers. For years, people like Chance and Vic Mensa have said the same thing in interviews: “Joey Purp is about to blow up.”
Is he? Until now, his biggest song has to be “Girls @,” which has racked up a few million YouTube views thanks to its memorable Chance feature. “Girls @” is the only track from Purp’s 2016 mixtape “iiiDrops” to make an impact. Purp also delivered a solid verse on the 2015 Chance-ish album “Surf,” but other than that, I’m not quite sure I get the hype. His friends certainly believe in him, but where’s the Joey Purp we’ve heard so much about?
Two weeks ago, with the release of his debut album “QUARTERTHING,” that Joey Purp finally emerged. It’s an energetic and vibrant project, full of quick songs and tough beats. In fact, within the context of post-Chance Chicago, “QUARTERTHING” is far edgier than a “Telefone” or a “Bucket List.” The album gets off to a strong start with “24K Gold,” which is a sweeping, serious track that does a good job setting the tone. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA shows up on the second track, “Godbody,” doing his best to keep the epic feel going.
When the album does slow down, around the halfway point, it’s not the end of the world. Joey Purp has finally lived up to his reputation. I’m not as hot on “QUARTERTHING” as I am on “Room 25,” but I can recommend a lot of tracks (I’m particularly fond of “Look at my Wrist”). “QUARTERTHING” is solid.
A “Slice” of Disappointment
Speaking of Chicago projects that have been gestiating for a while, Chance the Rapper vehicle “Slice” released last week. “Slice” is a movie that has all the ingredients of a delicious indie gem: a stacked cast, an engaging premise and an up-and-coming auteur, all backed by a production company that pumps out hit after hit. And though 2018 has been a great year for directorial debuts, alas, “Slice” does not belong alongside the likes of “Hereditary” or “Sorry to Bother You.” The movie is a mess.
In an unclear opening, “Slice” vaguely establishes that we’re in an alternate reality where the suburban town of “Kingfisher” is home to a sizeable ghost population. It’s not clear how or where this world diverges from our own, rather, writer/director Austin Vesely is interested in the undead as an easy metaphor for marginalized people. It’s writing as lazy as what you’d find in Netflix’s (terrible) “Bright,” and the extent of the supernatural forces that exist in Kingfisher is never clarified—“District 9” this is not.
Sloppy world building aside, “Slice” really fumbles everything in the character department. It’s never quite clear who our protagonist is supposed to be: maybe it’s Astrid, junkie/pizza-delivery woman played by Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta,” “Deadpool 2”), or maybe it’s Sadie, played by Rae Gray, a local journalist doing her best to keep the plot going. Or it could even be Dax, the werewolf played by Chance the Rapper who, for some reason, is only introduced like halfway through. No one has any kind of humanity, no one has any kind of clear arc—calling the characters “paper thin” would be generous.
Chance fans have been anticipating “Slice” for a while now, making this even more of a disappointment. The film was first announced more than three years ago in July of 2015, and studio A24 (more on them later) released the first footage at the end of October 2016. We knew the movie was written and directed by Austin Vesely, another up-and-coming Chicago artist and director of a bunch of Chance’s music videos.
But after years of waiting, my enthusiasm for “Slice” started to fade. The first “real” trailer hit the internet in August, showing that Chance would be joined by Beetz and Joe Keery (Steve from “Stranger Things”). The movie finally premiered last Monday in Chicago and other select theaters, and then was quietly uploaded to iTunes and other streaming services in a Beyonce-style shadow drop.
Clearly, A24 reached the point where they preferred to cut their losses rather than reshoot or keep reworking the movie Vesely promised. “Slice” is a shame because on paper, it looks and sounds like a really engaging piece. Unfortunately, the final product is barely a movie—82 poorly paced minutes that are neither funny nor scary. Vesely’s made some good music videos, but he doesn’t seem quite ready for a feature film: any scene that takes place at night has an amateur, unnatural feel, and nothing about “Slice” is cohesive.
The good that’s there in “Slice” can be found in the cast, which is rounded out by reliable comedians Paul Scheer and Chris Parnell. Chance does what he can with an under-written part, and he’s got a relaxed charisma that carries his scenes (why Vesely would sideline him is beyond me). I’d love to see a movie where he actually stars. More than anything I’ve seen lately, “Slice” is a testament to the fact that making movies is pretty difficult. Sometimes, the results are all too messy.
But “Slice” aside, it’s clear that Chicago is pumping out talented new artists and doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon. And seriously, listen to “Room 25.”