IWAS LEARNING ABOUT MY SOUND QUITE PUBLICLY,” NAO SAYS, reflecting on the progression between 2014’s So Good EP and last year’s February 15 EP. “As I was working it out, I was letting the audience listen in on that process. The first EP kind of jumped around sonically, [but] I felt when I arrived at the song ‘Inhale Exhale’ I was like, ‘Ah!, I think I’ve got it!’”
“Inhale Exhale” was a warning shot single, brash and funky, accentuating every peak and trough a waveform has to offer. Her debut full-length album, For All We Know, reflects 20 years of R&B trends without sounding like any one in particular. NAO’s breathy vocals sit high atop some of the most dynamic production the genre has heard in years. “You just know when something is a bit boring so you have to change it up a little bit. I like drama, and I like drops and big swoops, and tension and release.”
While a prominent A.K. Paul feature may have played a part in getting NAO noticed early on, she avoided assembling a laundry list of collaborators for the album. “I’m sort of able enough to lay down a beat, lay down a bass line, chords, all that stuff, and write all the lyrics and melodies. I recorded my own vocals as well. But I feel it was important to open it up to a small core of producers, just because there’s only so far I can take it without repeating myself.”
I suspect that’s a lie, but NAO’s humility is too endearing to challenge. Her process — “a lot of searching in the dark until you kind of land on something” — downplays how purposeful and fresh For All We Know feels. If she was learning her sound on those early EPs, she’s schooling us now.