Like many of us, Nao is ruminating on the ways in which the pandemic has undone her. All those months under lockdown, where anxious days were filled with loneliness and uncertainty paired with our collective grief and burnout from trying to hold it together amid a plague has transformed us. We're still in the thick of the pandemic, and it'll be years before we've fully unpacked the traumas of Covid. On Nao’s blissful new album, And Then Life Was Beautiful, the singer-songwriter begins her attempt at making sense of her world over the past 18 months.
“Change came like a hurricane, 2020 hit us differently,” are the first words Nao sings on the record. “And even though I didn't want it, this old life got a hold of me.”
Since the release of her sumptuous 2014 debut EP, So Good, the East Londoner has explored the brightness of life anew with an almost dreamlike gaze. Searching for meaning in life and love—of self, of family, of the intimate partners we share our lives with—has largely been the source of inspiration for her sunny mélange of R&B, gospel, electronic, funk and Afrobeats and Nao’s new album is no different. And Then Life Was Beautiful reckons with the emotional toll of the pandemic and a world fractured by chaos and grief. The music was born from the clarity she found through the quiet stillness of lockdown, a life altering period for all of us—but certainly transformative for folks like Nao, who became a new mother and dealt with both the collapse of a relationship and the fatigue of creative burnout. And all that change shook Nao out of a years-long creative funk that crystallized after she came off the road behind her exquisite sophomore album Saturn.
On And Then Life Was Beautiful Nao sings candidly about the impact of a life interrupted and meditates on the clearness that came from having so much time inside to sit in her feelings. The music might have erupted from a period of melancholy and much brooding, but Nao opts for euphoria over intensity. She unpacks the boredom and dread that filled those lonely days in our respective time loops over dreamy arrangements and even her dispatches on the pleasures and pains of romance rarely deviate from a state of pure bliss. She’s sharp when she needs to be, though, like expressing her glee over the demise of a relationship on “Glad That You’re Gone” or admonishing herself for not placing her needs above others on the deeply relatable anthem “Burn Out.” “I hate that it's bending me in so many different ways, I did it for myself rarely,” Nao sings, “a lesson for my heart that I should love me more, don't know how much longer I can go for.”
As Nao relishes in the calm of finally feeling fine, JoJo confronts the ways in which the pandemic manifested her heaviest depression on her conceptual project Trying Not To Think About It. The EP is a raw meditation on the malaise that fills one deep in the throes of despair. She’s asking the painful questions that have come up for many of us during a time of profound anguish, solitude and doubt—a time when we’ve not only been faced with our own impermanence but forced to navigate new ways of living and working and playing and loving; a time where we’ve had to constantly adapt and figure out how to just be on any given day. We’ve all struggled at some point—some far more than others—and JoJo opts to sit in those moments of darkness and work through the grief, guilt, shame and anxiety that crippled her.
Trying Not To Think About It is about the low points that sunk her during the fog of pandemic depression, from the intensity of the self-doubt that swallowed her confidence and self-esteem to the anxieties and toxic patterns that sent her spiraling to depths she hadn’t before felt. These are intimate records about feeling far from fine, when the idea of even being okay seems more and more out of reach as days go by. The project’s most affecting record is “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme),” a gut punch of relatability that sees JoJo singing directly to her depressive and anxious self over a breezy beat that evokes the warmth of 90s R&B. “You only show up when it's inconvenient,” she sings. “Always talkin' loud, fill my head up with lies.”
Where Nao and JoJo’s latest works serve as direct responses to the emotional wreckage these anxious times have brought on, Tinashe basks in the sweetness of days ahead on her exhilarating, and wildly adventurous release 333.
Tinashe’s knack for being experimental in the way she fuses genres and toys with song structures means her music requires multiple listens to fully grasp the depths of her lyrics. Though she is a master of creating trippy dance records and shapeshifting R&B primed for getting lost on the dance floor, there’s more beneath the heady ecstasy of 333. Much of the music offers glimpses of deep introspection about identity, personal desires, growth, inner peace, liberation and finding joy despite so much turmoil. She sings of letting go and hitting the reset button over a lush neo-soul arrangement before the album melts into an array of bright, intricate records that shift moods and genres at her whim—with tracks sometimes morphing two of three times before their runtime is over.
An eye towards sunnier days to come connects the work of 333. It shows up on the album’s first single “Pasadena,” a jubilant ode to personal growth, family and the nostalgia of home, and there's a commitment to manifesting joy and the pleasures of freedom that runs throughout her latest album. 333 is at its best on the poignant “Small Reminders,” a record grounded in the glory of joyful optimism and finding inner peace. Over a smoky jazz groove Tinashe's airy voice floats as she gently reminds us that time is fleeting before the record drops into a funky breakbeat where she raps about living life to the fullest. "Small Reminders" morphs one last time, falling into a meditative slow burner where she dares the listener to look inward. “What do you dream about when no one else is there to listen? What do you wish for? What do you care about?” she asks. “Who are you really though, when no one can convince you different?” These are questions that no doubt presented themselves in the late night hours when our minds raced during lockdown while watching the world fall apart in front of our eyes. It's the heaviest moment on the album, for sure, but like JoJo and Nao, there's a euphoric beat to move you forward.