“Feels just like velvet,” Nao sings in the opening moments of her debut album For All We Know and while she’s not describing her voice, it’s potentially the best description you could give. From her So Good EP released almost two years ago to now, Nao’s music has revolved around its textures. Before anything else, the thing that hits you is the velvety voice, rubbery bass line and sugary synths. There’s a physicality to the music that gives it a weight making it difficult to listen to without feeling as though you could reach out and touch the song.
The opening moments of For All We Know show that, once again, Nao’s brought the texture to her debut album coupling her unique soulful voice with retro-tinged beats. She recalls early Janet, possesses the futuristic soul of Erykah Badu and brings that authentic, swampy funk that Funkadelic delivered in the ’70s. It’s a melting pot of the old and new but her distinct feel for melody and forward-looking sonic palette puts her personal stamp on the debut.
Like most great soul music, Nao finds her groove in topics of love. Whether it be infatuation or heartache, she sits back in the beat and lets attitude pour out of her. On Get To Know Ya she’s infatuated (“Like a fire, you’re burning me up”) over gritty, charismatic guitar licks while on Happy she’s dedicating her time over a West Coast groove that YG wouldn’t pass up if it fell in his lap. One of the sweetest early moments is Adore You from her So Good EP where she translates her fluttering heart into a pulsating beat that floats into a celebratory chorus.
There’s an authenticity to everything that Nao serves up on For All We Know that makes you feel at ease from beginning to end. She passes through several definitions but there’s a relaxed vibe in the way she confidently creates this backdrop of future soul that allows the project to wash over you. As such, there’s an escapism to be found in it, like in the laid-back stylings of Happy, no matter how personal she gets. That’s a feeling you’re likely to find in all great soul/R&B projects, cherry-picking Janet’s When I Think Of You and Mariah’s Honey as two supreme examples.
Without naming names, there are a number of records this year that have chosen the outfit of funk and soul because it’s trendy. The issue with that is that no matter how great your voice or instrumentation may be, the genre is nothing without commitment, feeling and a flair for innovation. Nao has all those things and they collide best on the A.K. Paul-featuring Trophy where she croons over muddy guitars, putting her foot on the accelerator vocally to compete with the dense soundscape. “I’m more than just a number, kinda rare,” she sings, charging with attitude. She throws herself entirely into the song and that’s what makes her “don’t mess with me attitude” so believable.
“The world doesn’t need average to colour the lines,” she sings on Give Me A Little, perhaps presenting her mantra for the entire album. As relatable as the lyrics are and as universally infectious as the sounds are, Nao always pushes the sound a little bit further to give something different. Together with GRADES, who produced most of the record, they take unexpected melodic turns (Bad Blood) and throw beats up against each other, tinkering with the formula just enough to keep it familiar but interesting (In The Morning).
There are so many sweet spots in this album, it’s impossible to namecheck everyone but there are two in particular that stand above the rest. We Don’t Give A is the centrepiece of the record. It’s a disco-flavoured, ‘us against the world’ anthem that also provides the album’s most danceable moment. She’s singing about a personal relationship but there’s something more inclusive about it that makes it double as a mantra for any free-spirited Nao fan. The other moment is recent single Girlfriend which sits at the tail-end of the record, reminding us how charming Nao can be when she gently wraps her voice around sensual, poignant lyrics. “Your masculine’s an offer to be opened,” she sings juxtaposing her insecurities (“Feels like pretty doesn’t know me”) with celebrations of sexuality. The song soars when she leads into a shrieking guitar solo singing, “to make us fly”.
For All We Know‘s charm isn’t forced, it’s subtle. It’ll take repeat listens for Nao’s allure to fully grip you but there’s something magical about that. She hasn’t made a record that shoves her arrival in your face, rather she’s been smart about crafting a multi-genre sound that feels classic already. “When I drip my perfume on my pillowcase, that’s when you know I was there,” she sings, aptly describing her lasting presence on the record. You may not know it, but For All We Know will linger with you long after she’s sung her last note. Listening is the only way you can consume it, obviously, but once it’s done the textures and flavours will lodge in your memory. That’s the mark of a long-lasting classic. One you’ll return to for years to come.