Album Review: NAO – For All We Know

British songwriter puts a progressive spin on R&B with her debut album




  • digital
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  • cd

Before becoming NAO, Neo Jessica Joshua was many things. She was a jazz student, a backup singer for Jarvis Cocker, and a teenage ghostwriter for UK grime and garage hopefuls, among other things. To say that these roles have built up to her current career would be an understatement. At only 27 years old, she’s realized and melded these facets together effortlessly on her dynamic debut album, For All We Know.

Few other records are informed by such a rich plethora of music. While other up-and-comers like Wet and DVSN make solid bids for the future of R&B, NAO shows a masterful understanding of the tools with which she works. Living in those different worlds has made her music a unique, organic beast. She never meant to venture into pop stardom, yet here she is, and she is thriving.

When her single “Girlfriend’ dropped earlier this year, it felt of the moment and forward-thinking at the same time. The production swells into bursts of electronic climaxes. The stuttering rhythm builds a palpable tension, the heightened drama immediate and compelling. Plus, there’s her voice. The high timbre of it feels a bit alien, if not cartoony. Some may find it off-putting, but it’s actually a secret weapon that elevates her music even further. The best pop stars have voices that are unmistakable, and NAO’s has the potential to be iconic.

Throughout For All We Know, her vocals display her adventurous spirit, the mixture of electronic and acoustic instrumentation developing into a funky blend. With the inclusion of interlude tracks named after iPhone voice memos, the record creates the feeling of being right there in the studio with NAO and her band; it’s a humid, endlessly grooving jam session where no one knows what’s going to happen next yet everyone is somehow on the same page. After airy opener “Intro (Like Velvet)”, NAO surges forward with the watery bass lines of “Get To Know Ya”. Sharp guitar flutters throughout the mix, NAO belting the verses before bringing it down to a low coo on the choruses. The song is worth replaying multiple times to focus on the different elements individually. Like her own background, the mish-mash of it all builds into something greater than the sum of its parts. By the time the sizzling synthesizer surges at the end, she’ll have likely won over any skeptics.

NAO’s songs often delve into lyrical tropes from ’80s and ’90s R&B with their straightforward woes and thrills of romance. It should come across as trite, yet NAO reinvigorates these ideas with her captivating vocals and wondrous production. “DYWM” (short for “Do You Want Me”) could easily become just another seduction track, but it somehow supersedes that. Aaliyah’s name is likely to come up in comparisons, as it does with most R&B vocalists, but songs like these warrant throwing her name into the discussion. The twiddling guitar line sounds like the introduction to one of the icon’s power ballads, but it quickly becomes deconstructed with modern electronic production, synth-pads, and intricate drum loops. NAO exasperatedly asks for her lover to be her “life support,” pleading for reciprocation of her love.

Jai Paul’s brother A.K. Paul shows up on “Trophy”, a pure blend of the two artists’ styles. In fact, while he only appears on this track, his presence is felt throughout the record. Jai Paul’s “Jasmine” feels like a direct predecessor to ballad “Adore You” and the vinyl grain of “Bad Blood”. It’s a symbol not just of influence, but of NAO’s continued growth. She may already have a rich background, but she’s still pulling from her surroundings and prepping for her next evolution. Even the NAO at the beginning of the record sounds unrecognizable from the one at album’s close.

On closer “Feels Like (Perfume)” she strips back the maximalist, electronic tendencies for a drum kit, strings, and piano. It doesn’t necessarily sound sparse, but it feels like a weight is lifted from the rest of the record. Her vocals hang prominently above the band, NAO becoming the soulful crooner she might have been in an different era. It’s the one moment in which she seems to step into the past and it’s just as powerful as her forays into future pop, proving NAO has the potential to become one of the most progressive voices in soul and R&B.

Essential Tracks: “DYWM”, “Girlfriend”, and “Get To Know Ya”