London-based soul artist Nao’s debut album is a somewhat traditional affair – essentially a late-night collection of mid-tempo R&B tracks of the decades-old template established by artists such as SWV, D Influence and US superstars Brandy and Aaliyah. Nao’s voice is girly: pitched high and child-like. It’s distinctive but not uncommon (see AlunaGeorge) and will dissuade as many as it seduces. However, when combined with her inspired and often surprising production decisions, Nao is also able to disorient and switch it up with a thick groove, seemingly on a whim. It’s these apparently small flourishes that weld maximum impact and which help push For All We Know into a category which is more singular and compelling.
The album opens with a trio of crisp funk tunes with springy synths and wide open spaces, which other less competent and curious artists may have unnecessarily filled with an extra effect or snare. ‘Adore You’, the most schizophrenic of the three, begins with dour synth pads and an ominous mood which Nao somehow steers into a sumptuous and life-affirming chorus where she sounds sated with longing and joy. Sadness sweeps through ‘In the Morning’: ‘I’ve tried to give him signs, are they that hard to recognise? I don’t love him anymore.’ Trip hop beats gracefully furl out around howls of synth chords impersonating guitars, which eventually take the song to an impassioned and howling finale.
Standout track ‘Trophy’ has a relentless and circling, dirge-like guitar riff. This provokes Nao to expand her vocals into a more mature scowl, and so she comes off as a minor Chaka Khan playing off against A.K.Paul’s (brother of Jai) Prince. Along with ‘In the Morning’, it’s a confrontational mood piece and although these pieces are not in great numbers here (there are more, just not of this potency), they could very well prove to be Nao’s strength and potential signature. There are plenty of songs that are poppier, for sure (the bright rolling funk of ‘Get to Know Ya’ and the languid disco that fuels the brilliant ‘We Don’t Give A’ for example), but will they make Nao into a pop star? Her brilliance may lie in the more rugged and less obvious sidelines of her work.
The album does suffers from an unruly track list. There are 18 tracks in total with fuve of these being that old 80s and 90s staple – the interlude (or voice memos as they are called here after the iPhone recorder option). The effect is that the album demands start-to-finish commitment when adopting the adage to leave them begging for more might have been preferable. When Nao starts to sound too straightforward on overly polite arrangements like ‘Happy’ and ‘DYWM’, then there is a feeling that these tracks could have been lost without causing too much overall harm.
For All We Know is a great British R&B album that is not futuristic or even particularly experimental. Nao is far more concerned with music that gets to the heart of the matter with sturdy songwriting and thoughtful, detailed performances.