What Nao Knows: The British Singer Crafts Beautiful, Believable Nineties R&B

Nao’s vocals recall early-career Brandy, or BrownstoneEXPAND
Nao’s vocals recall early-career Brandy, or Brownstone
Jeff Hahn

In the worst of times, nostalgia is a type of currency. It's something we search for — a window to a time or place that looks, from a distance, better. Musically, that can mean tracks slicked over with a transparent, throwback sheen. Or it can mean songs that step into an era's sound fully, intentionally, and deeply. For All We Know, the debut album from British soul singer Nao, is the latter. It's steeped in the dense grooves and sharp, stuttering drum kicks of mid-to-late-Nineties r&b. That influence can be heard immediately in the 37-second intro, "Like Velvet." For those who enter this album unfamiliar with Nao's two previous EPs (2014's So Good and 2015's February 15) or her appearance on the Disclosure song "Superego," the track serves as a perfect table-setting: It pairs the singer's vocals — used here almost as an instrument — with pockets of space in a way that recalls early-career Brandy, or Brownstone.

Nao's lyrics on the album fall into the usual r&b fare, but avoid clichés. The songs are about longing and love, about regrets of romance and how to shake yourself free of them, and the writing is carefully crafted. On the synth-driven "In the Morning," she sings, "His heart belongs to me/but I'm still running." Meanwhile, on the funky "Happy" — which sounds like a brilliant update on a Monica song — we hear the euphoric line, "I really wanna show your smile to the world/It's worth more than a million."

Those straightforward lyrics make for a touchable, accessible experience. But the album's biggest stars, by far, are Nao's voice and the production that lets it flourish. These songs wouldn't work unless they were sung in a way that demanded to be believed. And Nao's vocals — flexible, airy, but also ephemeral — are believable: She knows when to carry a note (and the listener with it), holding it for the perfect length before dropping into a caesura. It's thrilling to hear a voice that can do so much, has so much range, and yet remains inviting and warm. The lyrics work — open up, even — because the stories they tell sit fully in her voice.

Despite its throwback roots, the production is layered, filled with modern risks. Like the artist's palette, it's a mash-up of vastly different elements: jazz, funk, EDM. The album feels at points like an unhinged jam session, figuring itself out as it goes, but it always finds its way back home. A simple, chunky guitar groove drives "DYWM," holding up Nao's voice. "Trophy" features A.K. Paul, Jai Paul's brother, and drifts into a harsh and grimy funk groove that Nao settles into comfortably. "Inhale Exhale" shifts from sparse to robotic, with Nao mimicking the synth playing along with her. The production seems more interested in building a world than claiming a genre, which makes for a listen that's delightfully uneven. It creates an anticipation that largely pays off from one track to the next.

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The album is sprawling, but not painfully long. Of the eighteen tracks, there are three voice memos: brief clips of Nao singing in what could be the studio. At first, they seem to add bloat, but these repetitive snippets ultimately fit the album's Nineties aesthetic. The memos feel raw, unedited, and somewhat private, recalling a time before social media, when the album interlude was a rare vehicle to showcase an artist's personality or process.

In music-making, sometimes reaching backward isn't indulgent, but vital. Not as a tribute, but as a forthright gesture, one that by turns reminds listeners to imagine a different world, and reminds artists of what can be created when the entire past is at their disposal. In "Girlfriend," the album's second-to-last song, bursts of silence are interrupted repeatedly by Nao's impossibly climbing vocals. The harmony anchoring the end of its chorus sounds of another time and place. Nao's voice is broken apart and layered into multiple voices, a futuristic twist on the arrangements of a Motown-era group like the Vandellas. The moment puts a bow on the album, and what appears to be its mission — a deeply intentional collection of songs that reach for the past with two feet still firmly planted in the future.

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