I think the first time that I ever heard NAO was maybe five or six years ago, when one of her songs was featured in a tech commercial that had a sci-fi feel about it. I remember really feeling the song, but I never bought the single or went any further into looking into the artist.The next time I came across NAO was while watching the second season of Netflix’s On My Block last year. This show is great when it comes to it’s soundtrack, but the decision to play “Another Lifetime” during Monse and Cesar’s breakup pushed me to give NAO a try.
And so, I bought and downloaded February 15 and Saturn from iTunes, and, like I did with Kwabs’ Love + War, I let them sit in my playlist until I up and decided to just give Saturn a shot. And you know, it was actually worth it.
NAO, like the last two #MusicMonday artists, hails from the UK. She sings a funky kind of R&B that should be better praised and recognized, but, when the genre is barely permeating mainstream the way it used to, it’s no wonder that a UK import with a different sound isn’t making the waves that she should. I have to give it to NAO’s marketing team: using her music to advertise American products seemed to help her better standout against the crowd of UK artists trying to make it from YouTube alone.
Saturn is actually NAO’s second album, though I’ve yet to seriously listen to anything she has done before. On her website, and in the interlude, “When Saturn Returns”, NAO talks about the “Saturn Return” being a time of growth and personal evolution. Apparently, every 29 to 30 years Saturn returns to the point that it was in when you were born. Other tidbits about this theory are sprinkled throughout the album to sound like space transmissions, so you get the idea that Saturn is built on both an idea about personal change, and a cool space theme.
The song that brought me to this album, “Another Lifetime”, really stuck with me when I first heard it. I wrote earlier about it being showcased during a particular moment in On My Block where two of the characters ended up breaking up. I think I resonated more with this song than their situation. “Another Lifetime” speaks about a love that came at the wrong time. Like, we could have been great, but this happened too soon for us to really make it work. That’s unfortunate, but I like the idea of there being another timeline in which things actually worked out.
“If You Ever” has a really catchy rhythm, but apparently didn’t chart in either the UK or the US. To me it’s reminiscent of an afrobeat, but I get the feeling that afrobeats aren’t faring in the US the way they are in the Caribbean. On the other hand, afrobeats are likely to be highly popular in the UK market, to the point where one song might have to do a lot to truly stand out. “Drive and Disconnect” also employs afrobeats.
The interesting thing about “If You Ever” is that 6lack is listed as a feature everywhere else, but on the album itself. I actually had to go to YouTube to find the version that features him. While I will admit that the addition is a good one, I don’t think I’d have gone out of my way to find it if I wasn’t already writing about NAO.
“Gabriel” is a type of R&B sound that I have never been interested in. It’s as if someone hooked the speakers up to tightened guitar strings, and made you listen to them pluck those strings very precisely. I’m sure “Gabriel” is a great song, but I’m just not about this sound.
My absolute favorite song on this album is “Orbit”, but the studio version has nothing on NAO’s actual performance of it. NAO hits a note in her performances that does not show up on the studio version, almost like she was not feeling the song to its fullest when she was recording it. NAO has an interactive music video for “Orbit” that allows you to enter your birthday and it shows your star sign as a move that NAO and another person dance to.
It’s nice, but I prefer the performance below better.
“Saturn” has run through my playlist a few times, but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t realize that Kwabs was on the one featured in the duet until I was writing the review for his album in January. Apparently NAO sung background for Kwabs’ “Make You Mine”, so Kwabs may be returning the favor. “Saturn” is probably the song with the most jazzy feel on the album, so it makes sense that NAO would use Kwabs here.
“Love Supreme” is the cute pop-sounding song that should be playing in the background of someone’s TV show or movie. It is not the standout on the album, and I don’t think it’s meant to be. “Curiosity” is meant to be a sexy song. It’s very reminiscent of Janet Jackson in ‘99, but I guess I’ve never been in the right mind frame to appreciate it.
“Don’t Change” is another good one, but to me it felt a bit unexpected in a weird way. Again, it has a very contemporary R&B sound, but it’s not the afrofuturistic vibe that the rest of the album is giving off. Then again, if Saturn is supposed to be about change, why wouldn’t NAO have a song asking someone to not change?
I like that NAO makes references to other songs or singers in her music. In “Make It Out Alive” she references the Lumineers, in “Don’t Change” she has a throwaway line about “Purple Rain”, and she continually has lines about orbits and Saturn all through the album. In “Yellow Of the Sun”, NAO references Thelma and Louise.
“Make It Out Alive” was a collaboration with SiR, whom I don’t really know much about, but I felt really fit the song well. It’s more of a traditional contemporary R&B song that actually charted on the US R&B charts, which makes me happy because this song is pretty solid. I can’t see any true R&B DJs missing this one. I didn’t quite understand what was going on in the video, but there doesn’t seem to be many music video shows left so this one was probably right at home on YouTube.
“A Life Like This” is the song you play when you’re watching an eclipse in space. It’s the lo-fi hip hop song on your favorite space anime soundtrack. Is it a space ballad? Are we slowly riding into the sun? Who knows, but you’re probably going to listen to it at the end of something awesome.
Despite a lot of its singles not charting, Saturn made it to #2 on the UK R&B chart and was nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2020 GRAMMY Awards. I think it’s fitting because the Saturn plays like a work worth making note of. It didn’t win, but even that nomination probably brought more people to appreciate NAO’s music. And is that not what artists want these days?
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