Review: NAO Fumbles Toward Ecstasy on ‘For All We Know’
Release Date: July 29, 2016
British R&B singer Neo Joshua has charted a slow — yet inexorable — path to her own startling breakout moment. She entered as one-fifth of the Boxettes, a quintet that earned some notice in 2011 for their imaginative mix of pop vocals, a capella melodies, and human beatboxing. “So Good,” NAO’s Aaliyah-esque stunner with the enigmatic A.K. Paul, anchored a 2014 debut EP of the same title, and precipitated a cameo on Disclosure’s Caracal — as well as a songwriting credit on Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman this spring. Last fall, Samsung licensed “Zillionaire,” the squelchy electronic-funk highlight from NAO’s February 15 EP. Now, her full-length bow, For All We Know, burnishes NAO’s status as one of the U.K.’s brightest new talents, with a full hour of clubby and emotionally complex set pieces.
The East Londoner’s dulcet voice often resembles the limpid tones of Aluna Francis, but while the latter’s duo, AlunaGeorge, embraces post-millennial electronic pop (à la DJ Snake’s hit EDM remix of “You Know You Like It”), NAO burrows into subterranean soul, and the kind of murky nü-funk and woozy bass championed by British tastemaker labels like BBE. “Inhale Exhale,” which was first released on the February 15 EP, shakes with a hypnotic, choppy stomp of a beat, imbued with fizzy gusts of synth melody. For “Get to Know You,” London soul revivalists Jungle assemble a scratchy guitar stroll filtered to sound like a RZA banger. And “Happy” rolls on via bulbous low-end and a shimmering candy hook reminiscent of ’80s R&B vets Shalamar. Despite its release on major Sony imprint RCA, For All We Know would be well at home on a more obscure dance label.
But underneath its sculpted grooves lies a thicket of lyrical neuroses. On “Adore You,” which features R&B duo Abhi//Dijon, she paints her attraction to someone as an incurable addiction. “You know that you do this to me / Cast your spell so you can rule me,” she sings, infusing her words with a mixture of ecstasy and discomfort. That the track opens with a vocal allusion to the intro of Kate Bush’s maternal lullaby “This Woman’s Work” only serves to heighten the track’s cocoon-like, nearly opiate sensation. “In the Morning” offers the same uneasy mix of pleasure and despair — a night of lovemaking followed by a morning when NAO finds that she “can’t be what he wants me to be… I don’t love him anymore.” She reasserts her independence over the funk-rock punch of “Trophy,” growling, “If you think that I’m a trophy / You better change your mind.” But the overall effect is of a voice steadily unspooling her thoughts, unsure of their cumulative impact.
“Tell me again, do you want me?” the singer asks on “DYWM,” while dropping a sly shout-out to Sunshine Anderson’s 2001 kiss-off anthem, “Heard It All Before.” It’s an invitation fulfilled by the conflicted desires and shy vulnerability throughout the rest of For All We Know. Whether or not NAO is “Girlfriend” material — to cite the demure-yet-hopeful ballad that closes this sensational debut — she’s evolving into an artist serious pop listeners can commit to.
Correction: A previous version of this post referred to “Adore You” as a collaboration with A.K. Paul, not Abhi//Dijon.