Nao at Brixton Academy
Just three songs into her homecoming gig at Brixton Academy, Nao received the kind of rapturous reception usually reserved for encores. “I want to take you on a journey tonight to another planet” she said, a constellation of orbed lights glowing behind her.
It was a quick ascent. The east London singer began on high, belting “Another Lifetime”’s piercing chorus from the inner circle balcony as pulsing synth bass and jolting, laggy beats emanated from her four-man band, stationed below. Recreating the opening sequence of her latest album Saturn, released last October, “Make It Out Alive” and “If You Ever” followed, the latter’s airy Afro-swing orbited by spacey translucent synths.
Nao describes her sound as “wonky funk”. Yet her albums more consistently resemble futuristic electro-R’n’B or honeyed neo-soul. The absence of her glacial, digitised, occasionally overly processed production, elevated her songwriting and accentuated her music’s funky feel. “Gabriel” and “Love Supreme” offered pop immediacy. “Fool To Love” was a dizzy stagger through synthetic beats and finely fuzzed guitar refrains. Nao even acknowledged the influence of neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo, performing his “Brown Sugar” before transitioning into “Inhale Exhale” (Nao wrote her song’s muso riff while humming along to D’Angelo’s tune).
Her backing band were finely calibrated, as was the show’s choreography. Nao gave a self-assured performance, joining four backing dancers for well-rehearsed routines and making engaging use of props: sensually fanning herself to “Adore You” before draping a cape over her shoulders like a neo-soul superhero during “Girlfriend”. Her vocals were similarly commanding. Nao started her career singing backing vocals in all female a capella group The Boxettes having studied jazz vocal for four years at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her technical proficiency was evident, shifting tone from a throaty husk to a helium-high-pitched falsetto, as light and sugary as meringue.
Where similar artists have failed, Nao has harnessed the sounds of trendy genres into catchy cosmic pop and an original style (Nao-soul if you will). A carefully paced set, Nao saved two of her best songs for last. “Drive and Disconnect” skipped along to an afrobeat rhythm and a coiled West African guitar lick, while “Bad Blood” was a dizzying slow motion lurch. Even from Saturn, the only way is up.