“Change came like a hurricane / 2020 hit us differently”. So go the opening lyrics of And Then Life Was Beautiful, Nao’s newly released third album. It’s a sentiment that all of us can relate to, and at times it is hard to believe that we are still in the midst of this pandemic.
At the time it all started, Nao was pregnant. As with many people who were expecting at the time, her presumed wholesome experience was flipped upside down by the safety procedures put in place, only adding to the chaos. Much of what she reflects upon on And Then Life Was Beautiful – and its title track in particular – exists in a binary: how do we float when there’s no control? Feeling life or nothing at all? “Smoke it up ‘til it fades away” ultimately only distracts from the issue at hand for so long. Like many people, it appears that having a career forcibly put on pause has given Nao a chance to reflect.
Back in 2018, Nao’s second album Saturn commemorated her late 20s, a period of life (if you’re into astrology) that coincides with one’s own Saturn Return, causing major upheaval. In a recent interview, Nao reflected that she was completely and utterly burnt out during the touring and promotional cycle for Saturn; this, new motherhood and all that came with 2020 made her realise that she simply could not repeat the ways in which she was living life before.
In many ways, And Then Life Was Beautiful is an album about the hope we find following times of hardship and realising that the binds we cling to aren’t the only ones available to us. The single ‘Messy Love’, released earlier this year, is a prime example of cutting ties with a painful relationship and, twinned with ‘Glad That You’re Gone’, commemorates the epiphany of putting yourself first.
As lockdown albums go, Nao’s is one of the most consistent and charismatic to date, and the best of her career. Taking the existing idiosyncrasies of her self-coined “wonky funk” – a textured blend of Afrobeats, funky rhythms and R&B – And Then Life Was Beautiful anchors the whimsical atmospherics of her sound with grounded basslines (‘Woman’ feat. Lianne La Havas), coursing melodies (‘Better Friend’) and the reassuring embrace of a warm harmony. By the time the album draws to a close, the chronology of Nao’s experience comes full circle as she welcomes that healthier definition of love on ‘Postcards’ (another duet with serpentwithfeet) and album closer ‘Amazing Grace’.
If there was one track that encapsulates the project, it is ‘Antidote’. As the lead single from And Then Life Was Beautiful, it draws together the purity and love that can be birthed from a hard experience, and choosing to embrace hope going forwards. As mentioned above, Nao experienced the difficulties of pandemic pregnancy, and both she and ‘Antidote’ collaborator Adekunle Gold became parents to daughters mere weeks apart. That influx and outpouring of love kept them going, and the sentiment of Nao’s latest album reminds us to hold out for those better times ahead.
Nao – ‘Burn Out’
The latest single to be shared from And Then Life Was Beautiful, ‘Burn Out’ sees Nao wax lyrical on the topic in question. ‘Don’t know how much longer I can go for / I really need to grow for me’, she muses, expertly surmising her shortfalls and needs in one fell swoop. For a topic so overwhelming (burn out sucks), the track is dreamy and atmospheric: think of it as a self love song.
Princess Nokia – ‘Boys Are From Mars’ (feat. Yung Baby Tate)
Returning with her first new slice of music since March’s ‘It’s Not My Fault’, ‘Boys Are From Mars’ is as fun as the title suggests. This time teaming up with Yung Baby Tate, the powerful duo bring us a revenge anthem for all the Venus Girls who have had to suffer a toxic ex or being cheated on. As they quip, “To glow up and blow up is better than sex”.
Kadhja Bonet – ‘For You’
An artist back from a far longer sabbatical, Kadhja Bonet’s new single ‘For You’ is her first to be released since her 2018 album, Childqueen. The song is a hypnotic concoction of dramatic and rich 80s synth tones, thick bass notes and a whimsical, atmospheric undertone. ‘For You’ comes after a period of reflection for Kadhja as she rediscovers her core love for making music, solely for herself.
Charlotte Adigéry – ‘Thank You’ (feat. BOLIS PUPUL)
Joining forces once again with her frequent collaborator BOLIS PUPUL as well as Soulwax, Belgian talent Charlotte Adigéry is back with a tongue-in-cheek art pop moment, ‘Thank You’. Described by Charlotte as “a cheeky and cynical revenge for all the unwanted, unsolicited opinions some people generously offer us”, the track slowly builds – complete with squeaks and stomps – as she maintains an air of commendable cool.
Lotic – ‘Emergency’
Lotic – the moniker of electronic artist J’Kieran Morgan – is back with another striking single. Returning after a three-year break following debut album Power, new outing ‘Emergency’ is a bold and experimental outing that combines ambient elements with throbbing bass and glacial vocals: thoughts of FKA Twigs aren’t far off the money. “‘Emergency’ is me fully owning my sexuality for the first time,” J’Kieran explains in the press release, “I transitioned a few years ago and it taught me that men really have way too much testosterone flowing through their bodies”.