Nao: For All We Know review – retro soul debut with funk to spare

(Little Tokyo/RCA)
An assured first offering from the east Londoner combines fast sonic cuts and painterly production with defiantly old-school touches

R&B and its close cousin, soul, have been plunged in the deep freeze for some time. Glacial minimalism has held sway for half a decade, not just in the deeper pockets of the nocturnal economy – where it has been percolating for at least that amount of time again – but the mainstream too. By mainstream we’re talking latterly popular former outliers such as Frank Ocean and the Weeknd (particularly before I Can’t Feel My Face, which rebranded him as accessible pop). Ice maiden Rihanna has led the female charge; FKA twigs refashioned the more recherché end of the genre over here. Copyists are too numerous to list.

East Londoner Nao has now lit a small but not insignificant fire under it all. This former backing vocalist’s soulful, involving debut album, For All We Know, is at first glance a thoroughly up-to-date digital workout with a long cast list of co-producers bringing their A-game (the jazz-trained Nao has co-producer credits throughout). Somehow, unity of vision pervades.

It remains a mystery why Nao’s outstanding Bad Blood wasn’t a hit when it came out originally in 2015. It still sounds tremendous now. There’s Nao’s disembodied voice, which slides deliciously from alien soprano to earthy alto on the word “lemonade”, and a woozy keyboard, and digital drama dropping in and out. The feeling is that Grades, the producer, is deserving of the Turner prize as well as some Grammy or other, so painterly is the production.

Fool to Love by Nao.

The previously unheard track Trophy finds Nao back in the company of digital wunderkind AK Paul (brother of the lesser-sighted producer-enigma Jai Paul; their previous collaboration, on the track So Good, was one of the reasons people first became excited about Nao). Slick funk types Jungle help out on Get to Know Ya, a stylish, rhythmic cut that packs both sheen and froideur.

So: fast sonic cuts made up of standoffish sounds not found in nature. But listen closer and the thaw is on. A deep throb of funk pulsates all the way through this accomplished, detailed record, as good on headphones as it is out and about. Everything is just a little bit retro, and unexpectedly full of grooves. The song Girlfriend steals, very respectfully, from Prince; on it, Nao sounds like an angel deep in a vat of syrup. Nao’s party trick of running from the top of her range to the bottom is later repeated on the more down-tempo Blue Wine.

For all its sharp production, Trophy has an almost rock’n’roll swagger to it, and there’s an unmistakably 90s feel to the multilayered vocals. Throughout, Nao balances some very aerated sulking about unsatisfactory relationships with defiantly old-school touches. You can hear everyone from Janet Jackson to Aaliyah in this confident artist’s deceptively dreamy tones.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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