Nao’s New Album Is Electro Funk’s Future

Hazel Cills reviews ‘For All We Know’

When disco died and house music was just a twinkle in a young DJ’s eye, dance music started to get weird. The late ’70s were folding into the early ’80s and synthesizers were infiltrating everything, especially funk music. Stevie Wonder led the way in 1972 with his discovery of the Moog, but by the early ’80s, Herbie Hancock had released the freaky Future Shock and Prince was cultivating the Minneapolis sound. Where psych rock–inspired hippie collectives like Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic once ruled the genre, artists like Rick James were taking their place with something he called “punk funk.” It was boogie music filtered through a new wave sound, born from funk musicians beginning to embrace the electronic aspects of disco.

Neo Jessica Joshua, known as Nao, frequently calls her sound “wonky funk.” After studying jazz at the Guildhall School and touring as a backup singer for artists like Jarvis Cocker and Kwabs, the 28-year-old East Londoner started working with A.K. Paul, the brother of mysterious producer Jai Paul. The two created “So Good,” a breathily voiced electro track in the vein of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s video-game J-pop. Nao’s been called “avant soul” or “alt R&B” or even a ’00s revivalist of sorts, a sister to D’Angelo’s nostalgic neo-soul. But there’s a weird edge to Nao’s debut, For All We Know, that makes it play more like a contemporary reinvention of that ambiguous post-disco moment.

On songs like “We Don't Give A” and “Get to Know Ya,” Nao sounds like a true bandleader, drawing gospel-infused soul from the same well as Stevie Wonder or James Brown. But she never plays her vintage touchstones straight, layering a Prince-evoking, groovy electric guitar line or a classic piano with the sort of icy electronics you might expect futuristic artists like FKA twigs or Kelela to reach for. On songs like “Bad Blood” and “Girlfriend,” she unleashes the kind of stadium-filling bass drops you’d find on a Flume or Disclosure track (the latter of which Nao actually collaborated with on the song “Superego”). You could easily file For All We Know alongside funky, nostalgic albums like Miguel’s 2015 Wildheart or Kaytranada’s 99.9%, but then Nao throws you off with songs like “In the Morning,” which could easily be a new Lorde track, all punchy, indie-pop drums and ghostly backing vocals.

But despite all of the artists Nao might remind you of, her sound is ultimately wholly her own, grounded by her gorgeous, twitchy production and high, sweetly raspy voice. On the doting disco track “Happy,” her falsetto recalls the coy whisper of “Ring My Bell”–era Anita Ward. But For All We Know is best when Nao is pushing the limits of her saccharine vocals. “Trophy,” propelled by a mechanical, revving guitar that evokes Prince and the fast cars he loved to sing about, finds Nao singing in fiercely intimidating staccato. “If you think that I’m a trophy,” she sings, each word a sharp, high-pitched stab on the track, “you better change your mind.” Every word is a booming invitation to GTFO.

Nao is not trying to simply revive the sound of early-’80s electro-funk, but rather revive the feeling of how people made that sound. What makes Nao’s “wonky funk” of For All We Know so endearing is how it’s not here to spit out the past with copycat nostalgia — it’s here to keep building on that fantastic moment when funk artists began to embrace new technology and synthetic influences. Just as ’70s funk artists on the border of electronica kept looking to the future, Nao continues in their footsteps.