Every 29 years Saturn completes its orbit, returning to the same position it held when we were born. Beginning in the late twenties, this astrological movement can be felt as a transition from carefree youth to adulthood. Not that anybody is necessarily going to be ready for those changes. Neo Jessica Joshua, known professionally as Nao, takes this popular theory and uses it to explore changes in identity and relationships.
What results is Saturn, Nao’s much anticipated second album. From the opening track and album’s lead single Another Lifetime a certain tone is set. “I hope you find your own way,” sings Nao, her tone is emotive but restrained, “I’m sorry we couldn’t make it.” Acceptance of an ending relationship seems more appropriate for the end of an album, but Nao uses every choice to her advantage. The tempo picks up in the second track Make It Out Alive, with help from a feature from SiR and a beat that pushes Nao ever so slightly away from the sweet jazzy sound she crafts so well.
The first three songs feel like a separate introduction, with the early interlude bringing the astrological focus into play. Nao manages to provide a lot of weight to the ideas that this concept gives her. Is it a little kitsch and theatrical? Probably, but it has a team of R&B masterminds behind it that have fine-tuned every breath and beat to near perfection. Grades, Ajay Bhattacharyya, and Daniel Caesar are amongst the writers and producers credited, and between them they are at least partly responsible for the sound of pop music right now (they’ve worked with the likes of Demi Lovato, Khalid, and Gallant between them). The production is really strong in several songs, like Gabriel, Drive and Disconnect, and Yellow of the Sun.
There’s a move towards a stripped back, slick R&B sound certainly. Gabriel is confident enough to make D’Angelo nervous; Nao’s sweet and soft vocals have developed into rich molasses now. Drive and Disconnect riffs off the commercial move towards Afrobeats and UK Garage, with simple lyrics, a catchy hook, and lots of layered vocals. What this gives the record is the signposts of the sound that’s emerging in R&B right now, but without the generic Spotify playlist monotony. If you like The Internet, Jorja Smith, and H.E.R, then this album is a must-listen.
For many, Nao is something of an alternative to UK R&B. She’s by no means unsuccessful: she ranked third in the BBC Sound of 2016 poll, was nominated for Best British Solo Artist in the same year. Her music is also used in HBO’s Insecure (based on the celebrated web series Awkward Black Girl). But her only charting solo single, Bad Blood, only peaked at 57. Saturn has plenty of songs that could chart, and a couple that could be advert-worthy (Yellow of the Sun, in particular, would be at home in an ASOS or Topshop campaign), but we will have to wait and see how it plays out commercially.
There are some slower paced moments in the album, where the conceptual element really shines. Nao’s vocals and gorgeous lyrics get the spotlight completely in songs like Orbit, and the lilting final track A Life Like This, as the production is much sparser. They are not my most listened to tracks, I will admit, but the different tones and early interlude help give a listenable pace to the album as a whole. Regardless of how well it charts, Saturn is brilliant and deserves at least three full listens.