Nao’s Atmospheric R&B Shines on Saturn

The British singer of so-called wonky funk presents a sophomore record that deftly fuses her decade-spanning influences with honeyed vocals.

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Nobody floats quite like Nao. The British singer-songwriter, née Neo Jessica Joshua, first found her voice in East London, where she spent her childhood collecting a diverse tapestry of musical influences: U.K. garage and grime, jazz, gospel, and funk. Now, the former backing vocalist weaves these sundries into wings.

On her second studio album, Saturn, Nao guides listeners through a galactic journey. It’s a lush, ambitious record that pulses with the singer’s need for movement. On the titular track, a gorgeous duet with the Ghanaian British soul singer Kwabs, Nao likens her love to a cosmic rite of passage: “You leave and return,” she sings in dulcet tones. “You’re just like Saturn to me.” Where her prior records have conjured an atmospheric soundscape shaped almost entirely by the singer’s vocals, Saturn shows off her nimble lyricism, too.

In astrological parlance, the Saturn return is the window of time when the slow-moving planet comes back to the place it occupied at the time of one’s birth. Generally, this astral revolution takes a little more than 29 years to complete, and the years between 27 and 30 constitute a period of intense growth and strained attempts at self-possession. It’s fitting, then, that Saturn finds the post-20s Nao evolved, the insecurities of the prior decade having shuffled off to create space for a more fully realized self—and more complex music.

On songs like “Gabriel” and “If You Ever,” Nao is inviting and self-assured. She sings the kind of woozy romantic bops that beg for dancing under summer skies. “If you ever change your mind,” she asks on the latter, “would you fly with me?” Her voice vibrates with anticipation and nervousness, the cumulative effect something of a flutter. In its intimate explication of the personal, Saturn is heavenly.

Saturn’s most traditionally R&B single, “Make It Out Alive,” features the Inglewood-bred Top Dawg Entertainment signee SiR. After his verse, the two sing the chorus together, their voices reassuring even as their mutual destruction is all but guaranteed:

Fall too deep, too deep to get outta here
Too deep, too deep to get outta here
House burnt down, burnt down to the fucking ground
I don’t even care now if I make it out
Can’t get out my head, it’s the atmosphere
Colors change, blue grass like the Lumineers
I’m too deep, too deep to get outta here
Too deep, too deep to get outta here

For Nao, this second single best captures what she felt while creating Saturn. “I’d hit my late 20s and everything was in flux: relationships, work life, home situation, everything,” the singer has said. “I was lost and I genuinely had to ask, ‘How do you make it out of here?’” The rest of Saturn traces Nao’s attempts to find her way out of this quicksand. The record sounds mature and lived-in. Saturn’s greatest success isn’t that it suggests that Nao has overcome all her obstacles; it’s how comfortably the singer moves through and around them.

Nao’s debut album, 2016’s For All We Know, was a stellar coming-of-age record. The reclusive singer, who’d more often shown her hands than her face, offered listeners a colorful glimpse at both her visage and her interior conflicts. Like her earlier EPs, So Good and February 15, the album was introspective and eminently listenable. Still, it was driven by chaotic mid-20s sensibilities. On “DYWM” (a stylization of “Do You Want Me,” its primary refrain) and “Get to Know Ya,” she begged for approval from a lover. On “Fool to Love,” she mourned the end of a relationship—and chided herself for having gotten involved at all. “In the Morning” and “Bad Blood” found Nao drifting away from romantic flings and longtime loved ones alike.

The songstress tied that project, named for the famous Donny Hathaway song, together with a series of voice memos, each included as a separate track. While the first three interludes were culled from Nao’s own music, the final interlude sampled the neo-soul duo Floetry’s 2002 single, “Say Yes.” These moments of curation spoke to a larger hallmark of Nao’s music: the deft threading of her influences.

Nao’s music exists within the broad expanse of R&B, but she reaches back into decades beyond the start of her own life when building her musical world. Often producing her own tracks along with her longtime collaborator, GRADES, Nao crafts a time-defying sound. She marries lean R&B to full-bodied funk; she sings in silver and in brass. Saturn is a trim 13-track offering, but in its 47-minute runtime, the album melds electronic production, funk, soul, and jazz sensibilities. Nao’s voice, dexterous and honeyed, glides across them all.

The artist has referred to her boundary-expanding music as “wonky funk,” a delightfully eclectic mixture of mellifluous R&B vocals and the bouncy production that characterized funk records of the 1970s. Her first public offering, the 2014 single “So Good,” paired Nao’s syrupy vocal runs with retro-futuristic production from the elusive producer A. K. Paul. Released on SoundCloud, the track soon earned Nao a dedicated following. “Wonky funk was about how to translate that sound into 2016,” she told The Guardian that July, ahead of For All We Know’s release. “So we fucked up the basslines and put some D’Angelo beats on it.”

The famously cornrowed neo-soul titan also gets name-checked on Saturn. “You can give me the voodoo,” Nao sings on the album’s standout “Orbit,” referencing D’Angelo’s 2000 follow-up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. “Like D’Angelo said, How does it, how does it feel?

“Orbit” traces the story of a lost love, a motif that recurs throughout Nao’s music. But here, Nao zeroes in on the healing that comes after. She celebrates her ability to navigate emotional pitfalls after being dismissed, to gravitate to someone new. Nao’s voice—alternately reaching toward falsetto and dipping into lower registers—echoes the agility of her lyrical arcs. “Orbit” serves as the central point of the album, dividing the artist’s growth into two distinct chapters.

Prior to the seventh track, Nao sings of pain and fear; after she is “released … into orbit,” she finds her way to a “Love Supreme.” She crests into the “Yellow of the Sun.” She keeps ascending.