Published Jul 27, 2016Two weeks before the release of her debut full-length album, UK R&B singer NAO was worried. The perpetual rumour mill of pending Frank Ocean music led her to concern about For All We Know ending up unexpectedly overshadowed. "#showmemercy" she tweeted. She had nothing to worry about.
For All We Know bangs. Not since Teddy Riley had the King of Pop holed up in a Virginia recording studio have I heard an R&B record like this. This is synthesizers, layered harmonies, heavy kicks and everything else one can assemble into a dense wall of sound made for NAO's leads to paint over.
Vocally reminiscent of SWV's Coko, NAO's singular natural high-pitched voice cuts across deep synth stabs, while meticulous accented background vocals swell, push and pull the songs along. It's a dynamic listen from start to finish, every dropped drum and abrupt mute brilliantly orchestrated and rewarded with a delicious explosion of melody.
Producer GRADES and NAO herself handle the lion's share of production, including the singles "Inhale Exhale" and "Girlfriend," both of which bring a new sense of scale to the idea of big records. "Bad Blood" is a clear-eyed appraisal of a past love peppered with good memories, spoiled by everything else.
Few, if any, of For All We Know's selections truly falter. The A.K. Paul-assisted "Trophy" lacks the dynamism that otherwise defines the album, and "Feels Like (Perfume)" plods some, but they're mainly cannibalized by the other great songs throughout. The staccato-chorused "Happy" and "Fool To Love" could very well be '90s R&B records, but not so much as to feel out of place. The standout album cut has to be "In The Morning," a tormented inner monologue about an infatuation grown suffocating.
For the little we do know about NAO, there is something in her music that conveys a sense of honesty and legitimacy. The experiences feel lived and the emotional crescendos genuine, but the inferred vagueness of the title belies the certainty at its core: For All We Know is a masterwork. Your move, Frank. (Little Tokyo Recordings)