The first thing you notice about Nao’s music is her voice. There’s a hint of helium in her tone, and it lends otherwise straightforward line readings a bit of strange delight: they’re hollow, buoyant, on the edge of slipping away. It’s an effect that makes love songs just a little bit more effervescent; when she’s working with edgier, more aggressive arrangements, she balances them out. And when that natural lightness is missing, you notice it’s absent — "Adore You," a lovestruck highlight on her debut LP For All We Know, is remarkable in part because its vocal treatment is so conventional.
That voice is her ace in the hole, and it’s one she needs given the density of talent in her chosen genre. Nao is a young British person making forward-thinking R&B and soul, and the best way to define her is by relating her to all of the other young British people making the same kind of music. (They’re all working with the same guardian spirits: Prince the Father, Janet Jackson the Daughter, Aaliyah the Holy Spirit.) Her closest kin in a vocal sense is AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis, who sings with a similar sort of alien squeak, but Nao’s songwriting is more left-of-center: less electro-pop and EDM, more funk.
She’s less conventional than Jessie Ware and Lianne La Havas, but her voice doesn’t have the same richness or punch. She’s nudged her way into the conversation surrounding the elusive Jai Paul — the British answer to Frank Ocean, and just as talented — by working with his slightly more visible brother, A.K. She’s even appeared on a Disclosure record, the closest thing to a rite of passage for a skilled British vocalist in the 2010s. (Her contribution to Caracal, "Superego," was a bright spot on a dim album.) You can see how emerging within an established, celebrated scene like this is both a gift and a curse. You land in people’s earbuds with context, but you need something special to stand out.
Her stardom is the product of luck and hard work, not destiny
That’s why Nao’s voice is so important. It’s what opens the door, allowing you to appreciate the subtleties of her songwriting: the off-kilter production flourishes, the unexpected chord progressions, the inspired imagery. She spent some time in the musical trenches before committing to composition. After finishing her studies in vocal jazz at London’s prestigious Guildhall School for Music and Drama, she worked as a backup and session singer for bands like Pulp. She also taught schoolchildren piano and worked with a choir; she enjoyed a brief stint in an all-female beatboxing group. Stardom has never been a consequence of destiny for her. It’s the product of luck and hard work. "I would see Rihanna or Beyoncé and I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I understand why they’re stars,’" she told The Guardian. "I thought, ‘I don’t have that about me. I have a good voice but maybe that’s not enough.’"
For All We Know is shaped by that experience — it’s clear, concise despite stretching out over 18 tracks, and unpretentious. Almost every song orbits around funk, but they’re varied enough to keep your attention. The A.K. Paul collaboration "Trophy" is grimy and automotive; "Happy" and "Fool to Love" are lighter and wobblier. She reaches down to the very bottom of her range for "Bad Blood," a spacious and purple song with synths out of an early-period Drake record and lyrics out of a scrapped poem. "Girlfriend" is even better: it uses space and silence to render Nao’s longing and insecurity — "Could you like someone that’s hopin’ that they crawl out of their own skin for a time?" — almost unbearable.
These are all deep, curious songs, but I keep coming back to the voice singing them. It moves in ways you don’t expect, generates indelible moments out of thin air. In the middle of the snarling "Inhale Exhale," she sings a descending run alongside a synth that’s somewhere between a normal human sound and a Zapp-esque talk box; it’s been rattling around my head for a solid week. At the climax of "Bad Blood," it’s the transformation of the word "cool" into something with a dozen syllables and just as many distinct notes. There’s a little burst of harmony during the second verse of "Girlfriend" that’ll knock you on your feet every time. Sequences like that are what make For All We Know such a joy, and they’re what separate Nao from her contemporaries in a crowded field. She knows how to put those otherworldly pipes to good use.