Neo Jessica Joshua, or Nao, is someone who's quite the outlier in the UK Electronic R&B scene.
Her music isn't normally the usual electronic production with with soulful, crooning vocals like James Blake, Jack Garratt, or SOHN. So, where does Nao fit into this scene? Before we answer that question, you all may recognize Nao from her features with Mura Masa (Firefly) and Disclosure (Superego).
What makes Nao an outlier in the UK Electronic Alternative R&B wave is her sound. Instead of the usual subtle, smooth, heavy bass, reverberated sound, Nao takes a more livelier and bouncy approach for her style of Alternative R&B. She describes her sound as "wonky funk". Wonky is a style of electronic music that uses off-beat hip-hop rhythms and combines them with elements of dubstep or IDM. Nao combining the groovy, bouncy rhythms of funk with the off-beat hip-hop dubstep rhythms of Wonky is what gives her music that lively electro-funky sound that you won't see with artists like Roses Gabor, Szjerdene, or Fka Twigs. A few of her songs that fit that lively, bouncy sound would be Good Girl, Get to Know Ya, and Trophy.
Wonky Funk isn’t the only sound Nao can do. If you check out her album Saturn, Nao shows that she can do more stripped down R&B tracks that tread into Neo-Soul territory. She is able to incorporate sounds like tribal beats (If You Ever), Afrobeats (Drive and Disconnect, Antidote), and off beat rhythms (Make it Out Alive, Gabriel, Inhale Exhale). Overall, Nao is someone who isn’t afraid to step into a new territory of music.
Another thing that makes Nao an outlier is her singing voice, which is one of the most recognizable ones in R&B music. It also a bit of a double edged sword, because it often makes her not as accessible music-wise. Her singing voice is very high pitched. It even sounds like it's computer generated at times, but let me tell you, it's all real. If you don't believe me, then watch this live performance of Drive and Disconnect.
Nao also possesses a massive range. I’m fully aware that simply having a massive range isn’t what makes a good singer. What makes a good singer is how they use that range to its fullest extent. Luckily, Nao knows how to use her massive range. She can put it on full display like in Bad Blood and Love Supreme. She can hit high notes like in Apple Cherry, low notes like in in Orbit, or hit both along with the middle in the same song like in A Life Like This. When Nao sings, she often has her voice follow the production in the song. If you listen to Inhale Exhale), Golden, Give Me a Little, or Fool to Love, you can get a full picture of it.
She treats her voice like it’s an instrument, which isn’t seen a lot these days I believe. Nao's singing style is based on vocal jazz which makes sense considering that she studied jazz during her childhood. You can clearly tell from her phrasing, ad libs (Inhale Exhale), Golden, Gabriel), and improvisations that her major influences are jazz singers. As amazing as Nao's singing voice is, what also works for her is her songwriting ability. Her songwriting may not seem amazing at first, but for her singing style, it fits perfectly. It's as if she bases her lyrics on the production of her songs then allows her singing voice to follow suit. This method of writing is commonly used in hip-hop music, where an MC would hear the beat of a song and write lyrics that would follow the beat. Some of Nao's best lyrics can be seen in Orbit, Saturn, Blue Wine, Bad Blood, It's You, and Adore You.
If you are in the mood for Nao's "wonky funk" sound check out her projects So Good - EP and For All We Know. If you want something more atmospheric, but still having the "wonky funk" sound, listen to her project February 15. If you want something that less on the electronic side, but a good mix of Contemporary and Alternative R&B, listen to Saturn.