The Nottingham-born, Grammy-nominated Nao has her work cut out when it comes to following the stunning ‘Saturn’. A serene, commercial body of work, that second album saw her smooth and uniquely pitched vocals assume their inimitable place in the worlds of R&B and pop music. Nao has experienced a lot in the past three years, from becoming a mother to suffering severe burnout. ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ captures a sense of healing, and offers hope.
The opening title track is reminiscent of the soulful age of early 2010s R&B, when stars such as Elle Varner thrived on bluesy chords and deeply emotional lyrics. Nao gives us a moment to catch ourselves: “Here’s a moment just to think about, think about all that is you / Take a second just to breathe it out”. The track utilises fluttery mandolin loops like those heard on ‘Pink + White’, a track from Frank Ocean‘s second album ‘Blonde’; Nao has cited the record as an inspiration for her organic and more acoustic sound this time around.
Speaking to NME about this subtly exploratory album, she recently explained: “It’s a chance to explore your own voice, your own musicality and songwriting. It’s a chance for me to try out a load of different styles.” Indeed, she takes it upbeat with the afrobeats-inspired ‘Antidote’, featuring Nigerian rising afropop superstar Adekunle Gold. With its infectious sound, glockenspiel chimes and hissing shakers, it’s one to learn for when Nao goes back on the road.
What she does best on this record – in a departure from her previous work – is evoke the sultry nature of jazz. This is nowhere more evident than on ‘Good Luck’, featuring rising R&B legend Lucky Daye; it’s a perfect male-female ballad, the duo maintaining their airs and graces as if in courtship. ‘Woman’ exudes a smoky Motown feel, as Nao and neo-soul singer Lianne La Havas craft a funky, empowering track for the ladies. “If God is a woman, on Sundays I’m’a worship us,” La Havas sings.
At the start of her career, Nao played around with electronic synths, before moving to the more commercial pop-R&B of ‘Saturn’. With this album, there’s a deeper appreciation for the genre. ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ truly is a true celebration of R&B, yet – despite its nostalgic nods – Nao has still created a record that doesn’t sound like anyone else. If you need to do a little soul-searching yourself, this soulful record is a good place to start.
Release Date: September 24th
Record Label: Little Tokyo Recordings