Two weeks before the release of her debut full-length album, UK R&B singer NAO was worried. The perpetual rumour mill of pending Frank Ocean music led her to concern about For All We Know ending up unexpectedly overshadowed. "#showmemercy" she tweeted. She had nothing to worry about.For All We Know bangs.
It's hard to talk about the year we've had without feeling sincerely sick about it. It's difficult to reflect on things that aren't quite over yet. But still, we try. Perhaps it's in an attempt to gain insight, or perspective, or just a little peace, that the conversation is steadfast, centred around the political headlines, social justice hashtags and scandalous retweets in a 24-hour news cycle.
East London native Neo Jessica Joshua steadily slipped into the foreground during the mid-2010s. In a set of developmental and promising EPs self-released in 2014 and 2015, the former background singer resembled a 21st century mix of Deniece Williams and Lil' Mo with a sweet assertiveness that prompted her frequent classification as "songbird." Later in 2015, Joshua became more visible when she augmented Disclosure's Caracal, an album with drop-ins by fellow R&B progressives Kwabs (whom she once supported) and Miguel. Subsequently a BBC Sound of 2016 nominee, Joshua completed her overstuffed debut album with old and new accomplices including A.K.
NAO’s 2015 single Bad Blood was one of the very best tracks of last year. It was ridiculously slick, showcasing Neo Jessica Joshua’s spectacularly malleable voice from the outset of the track. It advanced as a mesh of synths, beats and sumptuous production, growing and swelling like a tidal wave. Quite frankly, it should have been everywhere, and still should be.
R&B and its close cousin, soul, have been plunged in the deep freeze for some time. Glacial minimalism has held sway for half a decade, not just in the deeper pockets of the nocturnal economy – where it has been percolating for at least that amount of time again – but the mainstream too. By mainstream we’re talking latterly popular former outliers such as Frank Ocean and the Weeknd (particularly before I Can’t Feel My Face, which rebranded him as accessible pop).
British R&B singer Neo Joshua has charted a slow — yet inexorable — path to her own startling breakout moment. She entered as one-fifth of the Boxettes, a quintet that earned some notice in 2011 for their imaginative mix of pop vocals, a capella melodies, and human beatboxing. “So Good,” NAO’s Aaliyah-esque stunner with the enigmatic A.K. Paul, anchored a 2014 debut EP of the same title, and precipitated a cameo on Disclosure’s Caracal — as well as a songwriting credit on Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman this spring.
Being one of the BBC’s carefully selected ‘Sounds of 2016’ doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to Nao. Somewhat of a late bloomer, she has plied her trade over the last decade as a backing vocalist for a host of acts from Kwabs to Jarvis Cocker, spending the first half of her twenties at the side of the stage as she tried to mastermind her move to the centre. Her debut solo collection, 2014’s excellent ‘So Good’ EP, didn’t land until a couple of weeks before her twenty-seventh birthday.
The term “future R&B” loses some of its new-fangled resonance now that everyone and their Garageband-proficient dog is at it. After the similarly inclined Jack Garratt, Mura Masa, Dua Lipa and Mabel, Nao, whose voice appeared on Disclosure’s Caracal, affirms her place as the most emotionally textured of this modern-pop wave. The Londoner’s debut, featuring funk enigma AK Paul and a series of voice memos, combines the honeyed with the industrial, her contorted grooves veering between Dam Funk’s scratchy sonics and Stevie Wonder’s spiritual soul.
Since penning her first song in 2013, Nao has come close to mastering a particular strand of funky, high-gloss R&B. Her A.K. Paul-featuring debut single, “So Good,” arrived within months of that first songwriting attempt, creating her template for emotionally precise pop that gives away little about its creator. Her empire has expanded—after the single, she formed Little Tokyo Recordings to release a handful of EPs—as has her songwriting.
Before becoming NAO, Neo Jessica Joshua was many things. She was a jazz student, a backup singer for Jarvis Cocker, and a teenage ghostwriter for UK grime and garage hopefuls, among other things. To say that these roles have built up to her current career would be an understatement. At only 27 years old, she’s realized and melded these facets together effortlessly on her dynamic debut album, For All We Know.
The Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom offers a salient look at the fate of many backing singers. They might have vocals so bloody strong they could drag a 10-tonne truck, but mostly they end up stuck in the shadows of the big bands and massive artists they work for, the credit for their contribution to some of the world’s biggest hits lost in the sands of time. Nao could have easily slipped into that camp.
Nao’s “Bad Blood” was 2015’s greatest hit that wasn’t; an absolute tidal wave of a song that simply should have been everywhere. It still stands out within the context of her debut LP, For All We Know, but the album cements the East London singer as one of the freshest and most gifted artists in R&B today. Armed with a cavalcade of top-notch electronic producers including Jungle, Royce Wood Junior, A.K.
I haven’t been impressed by the mass import of female R&B artists over wonky (but not too wonky) backdrops from the UK. The effect is supposed to combine sweeter vocals with, call them industrial soundscapes, but most of the time, it often feels like it’s a pose. The darkness is too clean and the movement’s too lurchy (the spacing of the hook on “Girlfriend” leaves something to be desired).
Nao’s second EP came out last year and earned Pitchfork’s Best New Music badge on the strength of tracks like the thumping, swaggery Inhale Exhale (a version of which appears on For All We Know). Its mix of old-school funk and soul with new school electronic sounds cemented the East London neo-soul singer’s status as a Next Big Thing. For All We Know builds on that, but not as strongly as we’d hoped.