By Francesca Mudannayake
Out of the nominees this year for the BRIT Award for Best British Female Solo Artist, two musicians stand out. NAO and Anohni both released albums that were not only critically acclaimed, but shook the very foundations of their genre. Anohni created the perfect protest record, one that encapsulated political and environmental issues. NAO (aka Neo Jessica Joshua) took an introspective route, preferring to examine her relationships with her own brand of ‘wonky funk’. The results are divine and were on display at her recent headline show in London.
There’s not much you can do in terms of set design for the 02 Shepherd’s Bush stage, but that didn’t faze NAO, who held her own for the best part of 2 hours. With fluttery vocals that swoop up and down the scales, the angelic ‘Intro (Like Velvet)’ filtered into the 80s synth tune ‘Happy’. Harnessing the crowd’s appetite for RnB, NAO injected random covers into her songs like Justin Timberlake’s ‘Senorita’. The results made for an interesting contrast between the RnB of yesteryear and the genre’s current renaissance. NAO just happens to be one of the faces of this renaissance and her performance made it clear why she has been so successful.
Unlike BANKS or The Weeknd who manage to create spaces of isolation in their music that often seem uninviting, there is something about NAO’s production that asks you to take solace within it. For example, her most revealing tune ‘In The Morning’ catalogues her inability to break up with a lover. Shrouded in dark synths and harmonies, NAO draws people in with her soft voice. The tune plays out perfectly onstage but it is the huge climax (accompanied by a flash of blinding white light) that takes people by surprise. Her haunting vocals binds the performance together and one can’t help but be entranced and taken in by the song.
The heavier moments of the show are balanced out with other upbeat tunes in her catalogue including the infectious ‘Fool to Love’ and ‘We Don’t Give A’. But what really connects this entire performance is NAO herself: confident, bold, but blessed with a humble attitude, as evidenced by her onstage banter between songs.
The show finished off with her two biggest singles to date – ‘Firefly’ (her collaboration with Mura Musa), and ‘Bad Blood’ each delivered with a fire and passion that the audience could grab on to. It was an electrifying gig and there simply can be no way but up for NAO as a musician.