It’s a hellish armpit of a California afternoon, and Fatimah Warner needs a vape. The 26-year-old has been mooching off her friends for convenient smoke a little too much, and it’s high time she procured a device of her own. Thus begins a mile-long mission through West Hollywood, worming through hilly streets and cracked pavement. Fatimah’s wearing a flouncy floral mini-skirt under a bordeaux denim jacket, buttoned all the way up, but she barely breaks a sweat — 110-degree heat wave be damned.
Business is booming at this particular outpost of MedMen, a chain of dispensaries and one of more than 400 businesses that have been legally selling recreational weed in California since January 1. Inside the store, a senior citizen heads straight for a fridge containing edibles while a couple of fratty bros huddle in a corner counting bills. Later, after a few tokes from the winning vape, Fatimah will joke that she’s a “basic bitch” for going to the ubiquitous MedMen. Really, though, it’s more like she’s practical and completely unpretentious.
Per the new regulatory law, Fatimah checks in at the front desk with her passport, weathered from a stretch of touring. Though she moved from Chicago to L.A. over a year ago, she doesn’t drive, making her passport a go-to form of ID. Under the advice of a salesperson, she selects something simple and appropriate for a beginner — a $70 HoneyVape-brand cartridge loaded with Blackberry Kush — then walks away from the cashier with a shy smile seizing her face. The guy recognized her as the rapper Noname. “That never happens,” she whispers. “Most people barely know what I look like.”
Fatimah is notoriously lowkey. For someone born in 1991, there is alarmingly very little information about her on the internet; much of it fits on the first few pages of a Google search. She declines most press, has never shot a music video, and rarely posts on Instagram; in July, she wiped her account on the social media platform almost entirely. She nearly cancelled the shoot for this story, she says, because she felt so uncomfortable with the idea of being photographed. So when she’s identified in public, it means something.
Fatimah has been making music for the past five years, emerging with a slate of guest verses as part of the poetry-adjacent Chicago rap scene that is perhaps best associated with Chance the Rapper. First there was an urgent, shattered few bars on Chance’s 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap. Three years later, she dazzled on his album, Coloring Book, with an uncharacteristically Christian contribution and a subsequent self-assured appearance on SNL. She followed that high-stakes introduction with a mixtape of her own, 2016’s Telefone, a beautiful, jazz-y project and a hell of a debut.
Two years later — a glacial pace for a rapper working in 2018 — she’s releasing Room 25. It’s something of a second chapter. If Telefone introduced Fatimah as a gifted writer, with complex rhymes, nuanced stories, and hints of humor, Room 25 doubles down on that promise. And she’s doing it independently. Actually independently, without the support of a streaming service or the six-figure checks that come from headlining arena shows. In fact, as she settles in a new city, creeps into adulthood, and builds a life for herself, she’s pretty much your Millenial-next-door.
Fatimah was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, in a neighborhood called Bronzeville. She describes it as being neither “all that safe” nor the extreme catastrophe the region is often depicted as being on the news. “I feel like a lot of my experiences were pretty average,” she says.
The first of her mother’s two children, Fatimah was raised primarily by her grandparents. Around the time she was born, her mom was opening a business — a bookstore, through which she had met Fatimah’s dad, a book distributor. Her grandparents, who ran a landscaping company, were business owners, too. “I guess they had a meeting of the minds,” she says, “and decided to give her that time to really understand herself as an entrepreneur.”
Fatimah’s grandmother had come up to Chicago from Mississippi and brought with her a good dose of big-city skepticism. So she kept her granddaughter pretty sheltered, with a three-block-radius limit for bike rides. “You better stay in here, don’t leave!” Fatimah remembers her grandma saying, her voice edging into a higher pitch. “The only way I coulda gotten out the house was if I had some kind of after-school extracurricular activity — but I wasn’t good at anything.”
When she was in middle school, she returned to live with her mom, who’d had another child by then. Readjusting to life under a new roof while handling all the changes that come with adolescence triggered some angst. “When I first moved in, it was a little resentment, a bit of anger. And I was like 12 so I was like, ‘Fuck you, mom,’” she says, going into a decent impression of a stereotypical teen. “We are fully past that now,” she adds. “That was like hella years ago.”
Though you wouldn’t know it listening to her songs, which come across as studied and almost precocious, Fatimah barely listened to music growing up, aside from the blues and occasional soul that her grandparents played around the house. “I don’t have memories of me being like, Lemme go put on this record. I wish I did,” she says. She spent a lot of time watching TV but didn’t much like to read and hated school, instead fashioning herself as the class clown: a goofy, joke-cracking child who would rather be kicked out of English than expose herself as a slow reader in front of her schoolmates. “Here’s this huge universe and we’re in this box trying to learn this fictitious bullshit that they’re feeding us,” she says. “That’s why I’ve never cared about school. Not because I’m not intelligent, but I just didn’t give a fuck.”
In high school, it was a random love of slam poetry that delivered her to rap. A decade later, you can still hear those influences in her music: internal rhyming schemes, dense delivery. “I started watching a lot of old Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube and got really obsessed with it. I was like, This is the most amazing fucking thing I’ve ever seen. I researched youth poetry in Chicago and the program I used to be in, YOUmedia, that popped up. That’s how I ended up going there and meeting [Chance and] all those people — a Google search! A Google search changed my life, bruh.”
That spark of art coincided with a newfound autonomy. “I got a lot more freedom. It was like, ‘OK, nobody has money to drive and pick you up, so you better learn how to take the train.’” All the while, she was steeping in the Chicago poetry world, whose mid-’10s renaissance produced artists like Mick Jenkins, Jamila Woods, and Saba, as well as Smino, from nearby St. Louis. It’s a rich scene marked in part by earnestness, a quality that can be as cloying as it is refreshing.
“Chicago is a pretty small-knit circle of artists that work together all the time,” Fatimah said in a 2016 interview with The FADER. It wasn’t much material, but her emotional verses on projects by Chance and Mick Jenkins connected with listeners and helped her build a small but not-insignificant fanbase, which led to performances at nearby liberal arts colleges and some verses sold to “random white kids from Connecticut” — you can still find a few of them sprinkled across the internet, though Fatimah would prefer that you didn’t look. “A lot of people think I sound like Chance,” she says. “That’s the one thing I get a lot. I don’t think I sound like Chance but when I first started rapping I probably did, ‘cause he was the only rapper who I was around and we would just be together.”
Her signature style, simultaneously honeydew-sweet and glum, is audible on those early efforts, delicately bobbing atop any given beat. At the time, she was going by Noname Gypsy, a reference to what she thought of as her undefined and “nomadic” creative self. She dropped “gypsy” in 2016, after learning that it was a derogatory word. “When I first decided what my stage name would be I was unaware of how racially inappropriate and offensive it was to Romani people,” she wrote on Twitter. That summer, Fatimah released Telefone. Then she embarked on her first headlining tour, moved to L.A., and, at 25, had sex for the first time.
“Sometimes I’m like, <i>Ugh, I’m being too honest, maybe some things I should hold on to.</i>” —Noname
As the sun sets over Hollywood, casting an orange glow over the hills, Fatimah sits in the backroom of a depressingly empty deli on Fairfax. She and a friend, a comedian you may have seen milly-rocking on your timeline, watch on as one of their buddies does a 5-minute set to a smattering of laughs and applause from an audience barely the size of a basketball team. The next stop is The Comedy Store, the legendary Sunset Strip club where Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy got their starts and where Dave Chappelle still works out material.
One of Fatimah’s friends, a gangly 24-year-old gassed off of a recent 15-minute Netflix special, offers a tour of the venue, snaking through the kitchen, an upstairs room serving as a dancefloor for the night, and into a tiny, windowless V.I.P. backroom with a bar. It’s empty, apart from Dana Carvey, who walks in halfway through the tour. According to her friends, this room will forever be remembered as the place Fatimah roasted an acquaintance so hard he wouldn’t have been judged for going home right then.
This Hollywood chapter of Fatimah’s life began a year and a half ago, when she moved to L.A. It was time, she thought, to embark on a new beginning and place herself closer to a center of entertainment. After first living with a friend in Inglewood, she settled in Jefferson Park, a predominantly black and Latinx neighborhood in South L.A. In between shows, she made a little circle of friends, consisting primarily of young comics, people you’d recognize from HBO shows and Comedy Central appearances. She gravitated toward them because they’re in line with her personality — more comedian than rapper, lowkey brash Chicago humor to the core — and she ended up as the musical guest on a network pilot one of them shot last year. “With my rapper friends, I always end up at the club, and that’s not me. I’m more ‘getting drunk in the back of a shitty comedy club,’” she says.
Fatimah’s near-absurdist funniness is all over Room 25. Like Telefone, this new album came together in about a month, after two years of fretting she’d never be creatively solvent again. “The first time, with Telefone, I thought it was a fluke. But now I think that just might be the way I make art: I incubate for a long-ass time.” But unlike Telefone, it was a financial pressure that prompted it. “It came to a point where it was, like, I needed to make an album because I need to pay my rent. I could’ve done another Telefone tour, but I can’t play those songs anymore. Like, I could, but I physically hate it because I’ve just been playing them for so long,” she says.
“That was the first time I was ever in a position that I started making music out of a financial obligation,” she continues, pointing out that she now has obligations like rent and helping out her family back home. “That shit was fucking me up. I was like, Oh my god, this is how people feel, this is why people have like 10 albums. When you start making money, your responsibilities are just more.”
Though labels have come calling, Fatimah has elected to stay independent, reinvesting income from tours and Chance residuals into the music: Ubers to and from the studio, a string arrangement that was more expensive than she anticipated. “Man, that shit is fucking expensive as hell. Someone has to arrange all the parts and then you have to then hire, like, 12 people, this big-ass orchestral thing,” she says. “[I paid for] the whole album, everything, myself. And I was like, Do I want to spend this much money on something that’s so minimal?”
It’s not uncommon for rappers to come into music independently, but it is rare for them to stay there. The business of being a full-time artist requires endless investment; a well-produced video, for example, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, often fronted by labels or streaming platforms. Fatimah currently has the support of neither. “I’m not even a control freak, I just don’t like having to ask anyone for anything in terms of finances. I don’t like having to wait for someone to approve where I can get my idea off,” she says. “Like, if I want to make an album and I want an orchestra, I’m gonna figure out how to do that. I don’t want to wait around for people to greenlight my creativity.”
The album was mostly produced by Phoelix, a fellow Chicagoan, who plays bass, keys, drums, and contributes vocals. “I just prefer live music. I think my voice sounds better on live production because a lot of the times I’m talking when I’m recording,” says Fatimah. “[My style] is very monotone and quiet. Live instruments give me more space.” What they came up with was a lush sound Phoelix describes as “moving like water,” an organic-feeling style that sounds hella expensive. “It took a while for her to be ready to make stuff, but once she got into that mode, it really clicked really fast,” says Phoelix.
After two years of what felt like idling, Fatimah finally decided she had a seed of material to draw from. “Telefone was a very PG record because I was very PG,” she says. “I just hadn’t had sex. I could’ve fabricated and made a record that was like, ‘Hell yeah I love dick,’ but I just don’t know how to do that.” The album was a document true to her life, though some of it was from the perspective of others. (“Bye Bye Baby,” for example, was a loving song about abortion that she wrote as a token of empathy for women she knew and women she imagined.)
“A lot of my fans... I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah.” —Noname
“My only reason for not having sex was purely insecurity, purely like, I’m too afraid to be naked in front of somebody. A lot of people feel like that but the horniness trumps it, the horniness is slightly more than the insecurity,” she says, using her arms to make a precise graph of the point at which horniness trumps insecurity. But the confidence that came with commanding theatre-sized audiences upped her self-esteem and begot an ill-advised relationship with someone on her tour. When the relationship ended, after four explosive months, Fatimah was devastated.
And so Room 25 weaves together the story of her nascent adulthood. “I say ‘pussy’ like a thousand times on the album. I just was like, OK, now that my pussy is like this character that’s in the book, how do I color [that story in]?” On the crescendo of an opening track, “Self,” she raps in a whisper that, like her, grows more confident: “Fucked the rapper homie now his ass is making better music / My pussy teaches ninth grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism.”
Elsewhere, “Don’t Forget About Me,” awash with strings, is like the feeling of watching yourself from above. She contemplates death, brokenness, and gets really real: “Tell ‘em Noname still don’t got no money / Tell em Noname almost passed out drinking / Secret is, she really think it saves lives.” The lyric, and the song, crystallizes both her pragmatism, and her unique ability to turn poignant vignettes into universal-feeling emotion. “I wanted both things to be represented on the album — the like, wide-eyed bushy tailed feeling that I have of like, I’m entering this new world, but I also wanted to showcase the sadness underneath it.”
It’s the sound of someone going through a latent awakening, and there’s something especially appealing about her candor. “Sometimes I’m like, Ugh, I’m being too honest, maybe some things I should hold on to. It’s just, like, very autobiographical, but there’s also a bit of me playing around because I’m finally able to dance around with the idea of being vulgar in that way,” she says. “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. I’m just Fatimah.”
It’s true that Fatimah’s style exists in a stark contrast from many of her peers, across all genders: she focuses on very specific storytelling, post-traditionalist raps with complex rhyme schemes and nary an 808 in sight — a combination that often lands her under the unfortunate “real hip-hop” umbrella. “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,” she says, laughing. “I don’t really believe in that at all. I’m not trying to be the anti-something or pro-something else.” This simplistic, shallow categorization is one Fatimah suspects is magnified by the fact that she’s a woman who raps. The new themes she introduces on Room 25 may change that. “Maybe this project will show some of those people who think that I am this very, like, conscious female rapper that I’m just as regular and normal as everybody,” she says.
In a back alley attached to The Comedy Store, where comics and their friends come to smoke weed and cigarettes on makeshift benches, Fatimah sips on a rye and ginger. It’s drink number four or five of the evening, and a heated discussion about the most influential figures in rap gives way to a sappy exchange of fandom between Fatimah and her friends. “Being a comedian is sooooo much harder,” she gushes. “Being a rapper, it’s not easy, but sometimes that shit is raw.”
A couple of days earlier, Fatimah performed at Electric Forest, a Michigan festival she describes as a “chill Burning Man.” She typically hates festivals — too crowded, too chaotic — but there was something about this one that felt magical. It could have been the lush greenery; it could have been the molly. Or it could have been the simple fact that Fatimah, a girl from Bronzeville who grew up without dreams of grandeur, found herself among majestic trees draped in technicolor rave lights. Speaking to her, there’s a sense of suspended disbelief, like how you might feel if you’d hit the lotto after buying a ticket on a whim. After her set at the festival, Fatimah sat on the ground, looked at the stars, and turned to her friend: “I wish everyone from Chicago could see this.”
Make up by Crystal Tan, hair by Tanya Melendez.