The cover art for East London based “wonky funk” songstress Nao’s debut album For All We Know depicts her, bathed in magenta light, from only the eyes up. She is an explosion of artfully untamed curls and a pair of enviable eyebrows. Her prior EP releases depict only her hands, and until about a year ago you’d be hard pressed to find a decent quality photograph of her face. Having worked behind the scenes as a backing singer for the majority of her musical career, heard but not seen, Nao’s album art appears to be a throwback to her days of anonymity.
Now, however, she steps out of the shadows, striding confidently to centre stage, with an R&B-cum-soul odyssey. Much like the title of the intro, Nao’s voice is like velvet, soft and thick, transitioning delectably between soprano and alto, head and shoulders above the rest even in a genre which demands a particularly strong vocalist. These vocals, sultry and saccharine, curling around the eardrum like a whispered confession, shine especially bright on ‘Trophy’. The track sits slap bang in the middle of the album as if it’s the climax of an Aristotelian drama, masterfully manufactured, with orchestral guitar riffs plaited around wobbling, pulsing synths. This stellar musical assembly is followed up perfectly by ‘Bad Blood’ – producer Grades should be awarded some sort of prize for how elegantly the song is woven together, understated verses trapezing effortlessly into a swelling, echoing chorus.
Like ninety percent of albums in the history of Western civilisation, For All We Know is constructed largely of laments upon love, but it escapes becoming forgettable or feeling like something we’ve heard before. Honourable mentions must go to ‘We Don’t Give A’, a punchy, glamorous song chronicling the efforts of one couple against the rest of the world. They’re outnumbered on the battlefield, practically gunned down by the fire of other’s disapproval, only to band together regardless. However, the track is followed shortly by ‘Fool to Love’. There are no prizes for guessing the tone of this particular romantic oeuvre, and it’s not beyond the realm of belief that the two tracks mull over the same relationship; the former the ecstasy of the moment, the latter the cringe of regret when things have come to an end.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its weaknesses. At eighteen tracks long, it feels slightly overzealous for a freshman effort – admittedly four of these are less than a minute long, but it’s still a mammoth of an album, and it doesn’t all feel entirely necessary. Apart from perhaps the droning and forgettable ‘Blue Wine’, it’s hard to truly fault any song on the album, nor the way they all blend seamlessly together. But it feels as though it’s a full tapestry of an LP, into which the offerings from a third extended play have stitched themselves. But maybe that’s what comes from just being too good. Such is Nao’s talent, it cannot be contained in twelve tracks and forty-five minutes, and must instead stretch itself out to close to an hour.
In short, Nao currently sits as an epitome of everything that’s appealing about contemporary alt-R&B – the angelic vocals of FKA twigs, the languid production of Mura Masa, a few leaves borrowed from Prince’s book and scattered throughout for good measure. She’s released a formidable debut, and as she steps up to take her place amongst the most promising new acts of 2016, in a year which feels categorised by bloodshed and tragedy, For All We Know provides a small flicker of light in the darkness of the here and now. Or should I say Nao?By Chloe Kent