NAO Matures Through Diversity of Style With Saturn

Saturn dropped on Oct. 26 as the second full-length studio album from Neo Jessica Joshua, better known by her stage name: NAO. The 13-song, 46-minute project shows the East London singer coming to terms with her age, career, and genre. Since releasing For All We Know in July 2016, NAO has been busy working with RCA records to put out this new piece of work that encompasses all of her talents, abilities, and styles.

The name Saturn comes from the phenomenon of “Saturn’s return,” an event marked by Saturn making a full revolution around the Sun from the day you were born. After the 29.5 years it takes for Saturn to return, one experiences what NAO calls a “coming of age” and “complete shedding of skin.”

Whether it was due to planetary science or just general mid-life contemplation, NAO addresses the changes impacting her life today. Saturn contains sounds of several styles alongside bold displays of vocal ability and incredibly catchy dance beats. The highpoints of the album originate in the quality and range NAO utilizes which are compounded by the album’s production.

NAO once described the sound of her music as “wonky” funk, and that specific musical theme is one that is carried into this project. This style was extremely prevalent on For All We Know, and while NAO experiments with some new ideas on Saturn, that didn’t stop her from keeping her classic noise on a few tracks.

“Another Lifetime” is a great slow intro that maintains a very typical NAO style of singing, and a strong chorus coupled with hard-hitting beats. The song, produced by Canadian producer Stints, is reminiscent of the 2016 Gallant project Ology, which shares the same producer.

“Love Supreme” is the banger of the album with uplifting melodies, a dance-happy beat, and a fantastic chorus. The deep and hot bass guitar melody in this song reminds me a lot of Inhale Exhaleoff For All We Know, showing off the true electronic side of NAO that gained her popularity in her early career.

“Gabriel,” my personal favorite on this tape, is another song that could have come directly off For All We Know. The song features an incredibly tight beat alongside strong guitar riffs and NAO’s ability to belt out great verses. After the second chorus, the song has a very NAO-ish key change and finishes strongly. NAO uses this track to remind the listener of her ability to pair vocals with electronic sounds, just in case they haven’t listened to For All We Know in a while.

NAO’s style ranges across several genres, from soul to electronic, but one side of NAO that can be easily criticized is the poppy-ness of her music.

NAO’s music has emotional depth, instrumental complexity, vocal talent, and soul, allowing her to make pop music that transcends the typical shallowness of the genre.

“If You Ever” is a great example: the track was released as a single featuring 6LACK, and while the album version does not include the feature, it has still become the most popular song of the project. The vocally dominant song includes a slow dance beat produced by Mura Masa, an extremely catchy chorus, and a classic NAO buildup and climax towards the end.

“Drive and Disconnect” is similar in its poppy nature, with the simple and catchy chorus and good guitar melodies; and it too has moved into the spot as one of the more popular songs to come off this album. This track stood out to be the most fun of the album, and will probably be the most played song off of the tape in the weeks to come.

Technically speaking, NAO is an R&B/soul singer, and she doesn’t let any listener doubt the genre classification for herself and this project. NAO has always had the ability to emotionally sing verses and choruses, and there are a few tracks on this album that stands out for their soulful sound.

“Saturn (feat. Kwabs)” is a love ballad that compares finding Saturn’s return to a relationship situation. NAO shows off her ability to sing on this slower and jazzier track, featuring a great guitar melody throughout and capped off with a solo at the end.

The outro song, “A Life Like This,” is another track where NAO takes on the opportunity to really just sing. The ballad is about her coming of age and about the way her life was lived, and the musical progression through the track is great. Similar to her choice on For All We Know, NAO picks an outro song with a completely different style and vibe, and it worked again.

“Don’t Change” is an interesting track that I really enjoy on this project. The song sums up what I find most incredible about NAO’s sound, and that is her ability to vocalize on electronic instrumentals while still maintaining a dominant soulful component.

The vocals on this song are emotional and hard-hitting, but still, were autotuned in parts, and the production includes a trappy beat, synth cords, and reverbs. NAO highlights that you can make great soul music on a bed of new-age rhythms and instrumentals.

As mentioned before, NAO has a distinct talent to vocalize on electronic beats, and that was extremely prevalent on this new project. Saturn was executively produced by NAO and GRADES, alongside a variety of other production credits.

The song “Curiosity” is one on this project that left an impression for the instrumental. The beat is slow, deep, and dark, alongside a very different style of singing from NAO. This combination of sound is extremely impactful and makes this song just one of the interesting instrumentally dominant tracks.

“Make it Out Alive (feat. SiR)” is also one of the songs that stands out for the production. UK-producer GRADES incorporates his sound heavily on this track, and the complexity of the instrumental shows that.

Upon first listen, I was immediately reminded of how I found GRADES in the first place; on the song “If You Let Me” by Sinead Harnett. This track is the pinnacle reminder that GRADES having executive production on this project was a major success.

Unfortunately, there are still two songs (and one interlude) that are relatively boring when heard with the rest of the album. “Orbit” fails to stand out for any positive reasons. The track lacks interesting dynamics, which are critical in this work because of its slowness.

NAO can (and has) release a slow, emotional song, but in the context of Saturn, “Orbit” carries a blandness that sticks out like a sore thumb. In addition, the song features an unnecessary autotuned voice during the first verse. Lastly, the song has a build up towards the end that doesn’t lead to any climax of the song. The second song that leaves the listener wanting more is “Yellow of the Sun”, which isn’t necessarily a bad song, but still boring, uncharacteristic of NAO’s work.

This project is impressive. The 29-year-old singer proves her ability to create a strong album that conveys the current state of her life. The project is strong throughout, with the exception of two songs. NAO’s ability to vocalize on electronic instrumentals, guitar solos, pop songs, R&B tracks, and slow emotional ballads all come together in a 45-minute album with great replay and aux value.

NAO has capped off her twenties with another great album, and it will be compelling to see how her life and music continue to change in the future.

Score: 7.3/10

– Edds

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