For a few years, R&B has been stuck in a bit of a funk (pardon the pun), the ruling trend of slow, downcast and sinister grooves ruining any chance of dancing or fun. Thankfully, NAO, a singer-songwriter out of East London, has the antidote. Take it as either a recommendation or a warning: NAO's debut full-length album For All We Know has a genealogy that can be traced back to R. Kelly, Aaliyah and The Spice Girls.
That's not to say that this is a throwback record. While the twenty-eight-year-old singer (real name Neo Joshua) herself has acknowledged the influence of the music of the '90s, For All We Know still plays like a thoroughly modern record There is a sharp edge to the music, which contrasts stunningly with NAO's airy, lithe vocals. The beats shudder, thump and squirm - there is a sense of physical mass to them that commands attention.
Following on from last year's near-perfect EP February 15, this record shows that NAO has the confidence of a true star. She has enlisted the help of the enigmatic A.K. Paul, and on the roaring "Trophy," she balances expertly his knotty, guitar-heavy grooves rather than being subsumed by them. She is equally at home on bristly bangers like "Inhale Exhale" (which also appeared on the aforementioned EP) or the aptly-named "Happy," as she is on atmospheric, drifting pieces like the single "Girlfriend" with its eruptions of liquid guitar leads and the surprising "Blue Wine."
Arguably some moments on For All We Know are somewhat faceless and forgettable - take, for example, the disco-oriented duo of "DYWM" and "We Don't Give a" - but this is a sprawling generous record, full of great tracks that make up for its few mis-steps. There is an ebb and flow to the album, with a comfortable progression taking listeners on a tour through the different sides of NAO's personality - sensual, confrontational, exuberant, irreverent.
The helium-filled closer "Feels Like (Perfume)" ties the album together beautifully. It's almost avant-garde in its construction, with strands of jazz, cabaret, soul, and pop intertwining into a delirious whole. NAO doesn't bat an eyelid as the song twists and turns, and her voice moves effortlessly with it. On For All We Know, NAO has taken flight, and it's an absolute privilege to have been invited to come along for the journey.
For All We Know is out now on CD and digital formats.