NAO

TAKES CON­TROL

Exclaim! - - SHOTS - BY MICHAEL J. WAR­REN

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.

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