Nao’s For All We Know is a delight and, initially, a struggle. The struggle comes from everything around it: the hype, the hit-and-miss descriptors and the unwieldy presumption that singer Nao – real name Neo Joshua – may as well be a FKA Twigs double. The delight comes from pushing past that to hear her gorgeous vocals and the weird musical formation that back her on this nostalgic future.
FAWK is unusual and intentionally awkward, but its own blend of R&B and “wonky funk” leaves a spectrum of many colours imprinted on your mind.
Nao’s sound is a strange clash of electronica, R&B and, in her words, “wonky funk”. Think evener wilder D’Angelo basslines fused with some Prince, and you’d be halfway there. Though one could draw similarities to critical darling, FKA Twigs, having listened to FAWK a few times, the comparison hinders rather than helps. Explicit, dark and polarising are not the first words that come to mind with Nao’s music – or image for that matter.
Nao has a voice that moves between featherweight and faintly gritty in a heartbeat. On early single ‘Inhale Exhale’, the controlled strain in her voice rises and falls in sway with the rhythm like churning waves. There’s more than a few overtones of 90s singers, such as Gabrielle and Shola Ama, as well as Martina Topley Bird.
Lost in unresolved love is the boldest feeling you get from these songs: yearning, insecurities, and fragmented desires that stimulate the imagination. The elegant ‘Adore You’, tinged with a Julio Bashmore-produced Jessie Ware beat, is charged with colourful tones. ‘In the Morning’ and ‘Bad Blood’ deal with the sour side of love, and the latter is one of the album’s standout tracks. The wonky bass cycles of ‘DYWM’ are another high, before you are washed up on the psychedelic beaches of ‘Fool to Love’.
Many of these surreal sounds are the work of London producer Grades. He’s also worked with Bastille and, recently, Sinead Harnett. Some of Grades’ productions can feel heavy on first impressions, particularly when matched with Nao’s feather-light vocals. But they are also a terrific collision of futuristic cracked electronica and summery, late-90s-early-00s R&B.
The end result is stimulating. Nao and her “wonky funk” is one of the sounds for the summer. Contrary to what some will say, she is not “another FKA Twigs”. If you like Dornik, Tinashe, Sampha, Kelela, or Frank Ocean, you’ll probably enjoy Nao’s For All We Know. It’s marriage of opposites may perplex at first, but its mood – its imaginative future-past – is sublime.
For All We Know is out now on Little Tokyo Recordings/Sony Music.
Image: Little Tokyo/Sony Music/PR