Noname’s Room 25 tour is the best poetry slam you’ll ever attend.
Born Fatimah Warner, the Chicago artist got her start in rap music as a famous local slam poet following a childhood fascination with the performance art. Upon meeting other future Chicagoan stars — including Chance the Rapper — in a youth digital learning program, Warner’s career grew wings.
This new wave of Chicagoan poets produced area artists and hometown heroes such as Mick Jenkins, Smino and Saba. Warner spent a few years sporadically collaborating with these rappers and eventually dropped her dazzling debut mixtape Telefone in 2016. Telefone was followed up by the sophomore opus Room 25 in 2018, which stunned critics and fans alike.
The Room 25 title iconography served as the single visual backdrop to Warner and her full backing band Friday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland. As the background songs following Chicagoan opener Elton Aura petered out and the first drum beats of Room 25 opener “Self” echoed through the theater, Warner immediately pierced the crowd with her energy and demanded its attention. It seemed as if every guest in the sold-out venue shouted back at the rapper in a buoyant cheer.
Although Warner typically incorporates live instrumentation in her music — and one would thus expect her to be accompanied by musicians on tour — her excellent band’s complete live renditions of songs from both projects breathed new life into an already vibrant catalog. The drums hit harder than ever on Warner’s 2016 underground hit “Diddy Bop.” The wonderful live jazz-rap blend of “Montego Bae” combined with Warner’s endearing cover of the chorus in the absence of featured artist Ravyn Lenae was an engrossing performance.
As Warner spit the lines of her songs, a crew of backup singers ad libbed each lyric with angelic vocals and a powerfully collective presence. Where rappers today typically incorporate hit-or-miss DJs or often unimpactful hype men into their sets, Warner’s stage setup fixated the crowd’s attention on her while inviting her exceptional band to contribute to the performance in roles equal to her own.
Warner’s slam poet energy showed clearly throughout the night — her vocal delivery started out slightly shaky, but improved drastically as she gained her confidence. She commandingly powered through the verses of “Prayer Song” from Room 25 in a way that could not be replicated in a studio session. The way the rapper directs her own voice to intensify, soften, speed up, slow down or suddenly burst with emotion is a key facet of slam poetry that Warner uses to her advantage in the live performance space.
Hip-hop music is typically made in a studio for the purposes of private listening or parties — the cavalcade of genres that composes Warner’s projects feels like it was intended to be heard live, and the studio versions of her songs are compromises by extension. That is not to say, however, that the studio versions of Warner’s music sounds subdued in comparison. It instead speaks to the brilliant way in which Warner approaches song creation and the large benefit it brings to her live performances.
Accompanying the words “ROOM 25” behind Warner and her band was a set of spell-bounding lights that at once struck the crowd and projected across the top of the venue’s stage. The lights seemed to react to each lyric, drum beat and vocal croon — they tastefully added to the overall experience without diverting attention from the performers.
A highlight of the night was the live rendition of Room 25 track “Window.” While the studio version of the song emphasizes its beautiful strings and Warner’s soft delivery rather than the bossa nova drums that quietly surround them, the live performance played up the song’s bossa nova influence, making a dance song out of a typically laid-back album cut.
During this song’s performance in particular, the best parts of Warner’s live show — the sensational lights, the ambitious live instrumentation, the soothing backup harmonies and the emcee’s riveting stage presence — converged into the peak of an already unforgettable night at the Fox Theater. The effortless consistency Warner displayed last year on Room 25 was strongly fortified by her similarly resolute performance of its cinematic songs.
Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].