As long as the genre has existed, R&B music has been largely preoccupied with relationships. It’s understandable why it’s such a popular subject, given how endlessly relatable stories of longing and regret are to an audience, but by extension, there’s always a risk of songs about love coming across as anonymous, or phoned in, simply due to sheer over-saturation. Ironically, talking about something as intimate as love, artists rarely reveal anything about themselves.
Of all the artists working in the incredibly fertile space of R&B in 2016, NAO is perhaps the most outwardly traditional. Her music doesn’t have the sonic experimentation of FKA Twigs, the raw sensuality of Miguel, or the emotional complexity of Frank Ocean. She largely writes about romance, and her production could usually be taken directly from a 90’s ballad or funk track. However, NAO has two gifts that perhaps no other R&B artist has to quite the same degree: her voice sounds like no one else, and she knows how to write an amazing tune.
Her rise to current popularity was driven by two EPs, So Good and February 15, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The title track from So Good combined A.K. Paul’s off-kilter future-funk with catchy melodies that stick in the brain, and a real emotionality that reveals itself over repeat listens. Those qualities are apparent on For All We Know, in both the two tracks carried over from the EPs, and the twelve new ones (three of the album’s eighteen tracks are Voice Memo recordings of NAO’s band). Inhale Exhale and Adore You were two of the strongest tracks from her EPs, with the lurching drums and sticky bass of the former, and the almost Chromatics-esque synth throb of the latter fitting well with the album’s new additions.
Most of said new songs concern themselves with love and lust, but NAO manages to execute them in a way that feels fresh. Excellent lead single Bad Blood shows off her gift for an evocative metaphor, with “drinking lime and bitter from my lemonade” being a succinct way of summarising the way memories of a relationship sour with time. The way she twists her voice whilst delivering the line, following the modulating keyboard, makes it feel like every lyric is critical to the meaning of the song. Some tracks are more direct, like the Jungle-produced Get to Know Ya. The verses are fairly pared back, with NAO imploring her significant other to open up to her, and the chorus simply consisting of “just want to get to know ya / ‘cause you don’t even know me”. It’s a quaint concept for a song, revealing in its willing lack of intimacy. NAO eschews grandiose declarations of love, and instead sings about something as relatable as simple uncertainty.
That sense of frankness and honesty is helped by the production, largely handled by NAO herself, and GRADES. Other producers make appearances, like the aforementioned Jungle, or the returning A.K. Paul, who lends his peculiar tastes in electro-funk to Trophy, but the main collaborators handle the majority of the tracks. Even the Voice Memo tracks sound of a piece with the rest of the album, suggesting not much production actually needed to be done after the instruments were recorded. The album has a crackly, analogue warmth to it, from the dripping synths of Happy, to the swirling keyboards of Girlfriend, and its a great fit for NAO, especially given the unique timbre of her voice.
For All We Know is not a particularly innovative album, nor is it conceptually deep enough to require innumerable listens. However, neither of those things detract from the simple quality that NAO’s debut exudes. She has arrived on a wave of dozens of other acclaimed artists, yet has still managed to stand out through the sheer quality of her songwriting. It almost feels like a declaration, or a statement of her intent: NAO knows exactly what kind of music she wants to make, and she’s fantastic at it.