The best and most rewarding artists are able to spin gold out of themes and inspirations that tens of hundreds of artists before them have bled dry. For many artists, the cataclysmic coronavirus pandemic and its resulting impact on daily life inspired singles, albums, music videos, and more. While most artists reached for the obvious (isolation, loneliness, separation, etc.), Nao, on her third studio album, extended her arms a bit further than some of her peers. And Then Life Was Beautiful is a lush examination of how the pandemic shaped relationships, and Nao’s growth in her approach to them, at the familial, platonic, and romantic levels.
“Change came like a hurricane / 2020 hit us differently,” Nao croons on the opening lines of the album’s title track/first song. Sure, these lines may feel a bit on-the-nose given the onslaught of pandemic-inspired music in recent months. Nevertheless, it’s a fitting way to ground the album’s concepts. Nao extends the hurricane simile with lines like “Been in the darkness for a while / We’ll see the rays shinin’ down” which shine against the luscious LOXE-helmed production. Like every song that she creates, Nao’s inimitable voice is the centerpiece of the track. With her incredibly malleable tone, she is able to truly embody every shade on the spectrum of human emotion. “And Then Life Was Beautiful” finds Nao upping the brightness of her tone to counterbalance the fuzzy drums. The true magic moment, however, is when the music drops out and she allows her harmonies, vocal arrangement courtesy of Nicola Sipprell, to ring through the track completely a capella.
The evolution of romantic relationships anchors the majority of And Then Life Was Beautiful. “Messy Love,” which I named the ninth-best song of 2021 on Black Boy Bulletin’s Mid-Year Ranking, is still absolutely gorgeous. Assisted by D’Mile, Nao pulls out one of her most heart-wrenching vocal performances on an album full of them. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught Nao, it’s how to set boundaries. “God, protect my energy / I’ll get on, fall out of love and get on,” she coos on the song’s bridge. “Glad That You’re Gone” quickly follows with a bouncy rap-sung cadence that livens up the album’s overall tone. Unfortunately, the track is a bit unimaginative from a lyrical standpoint, but all is forgiven once those strings start to swell in the outro. Throughout And Then Life Was Beautiful, Nao works her way through finding the joy in knowing when to leave relationships when they no longer serve her best interests — no matter how difficult that may be. On the Lucky Daye-assisted “Good Luck” she sings, “don’t run to me crying, I won’t feel your rain / I don’t wanna know ’cause I ain’t got time for games.” Like every other collaborator on the album, Lucky Daye and Nao have very strong chemistry. Both expressive vocalists, Lucky and Nao expertly translate the seemingly conflicting feelings of gratefulness, guilt, apathy, and hope. “Little Giants” is a particularly arresting number placed towards the end of the record. In addition to the lovely melody in the pre-chorus, it’s the emotional vocal delivery in the chorus that truly underscores how damaging secrets can be in a relationship. What’s more? Those who tuned into Nao’s Saturn album will enjoy the callback to “Orbit” during the bridge of “Little Giants”: “Gravity don’t feel the same when you won’t hold on.”
And Then Life Was Beautiful truly forges its own lane through the way in which Nao examines the pandemic’s impact on platonic relationships. The general conflation of “soul mates” and romantic partners has deprived us of a greater number of songs that truly dig into the rich complexities of friendship. On “Better Friend,” a distant relative to Rina Sawayama’s “Bad Friend,” Nao treats us to a tender synth-laden ode to, well, being a better friend. The percussive track acknowledges the way that people cycle in and out of life thus producing some semblance of hope for a “next time” to display one’s improved friendship skills. “Wait,” the album’s most stunning ballad, finds Nao working through the realization that running from every conflict is simply not a feasible solution. With the piano front and center, Nao eschews the electronica influence that covers most of her discography and pulls off a gorgeous minimalist moment. One of the most interesting songs on And Then Life Was Beautiful is “Burn Out.” For all the articles about the evolution of productivity during the pandemic, music never hopped on that wave. Nao, however, fearlessly launches into an atmospheric anthem that rejects the inhumane expectations of human productivity in a capitalistic society. “Too much energy that I’m spending / It’s not eco nor friendly / I hate that it’s bending me in so many different ways,” she laments in the song’s second verse.
This record’s cohesiveness is one of its greatest strengths. “Woman,” a fiery slow burn of a duet with Lianne La Havas, is as gorgeous in the context of the album as it was during its time as a standalone single. On this woman empowerment song, Nao lends herself to Lianne’s rock-driven sound while still looping in elements of her own electro-funk foundation. On the other hand, “Antidote,” which features Adekunle Gold, is a joyous afro-pop number dedicated to their baby girls, born just weeks apart during summer 2020. Earlier this year, Nao appeared on serpentwithfeet’s Deacon album, and now serpentwithfeet has returned the favor with his featured turn on “Postcard.” The song takes a while to truly grab your attention, but the call-and-response conversation in the bridge set against the gorgeous drums is enough to enrapture anybody. While the two artists are singing about relationships that are at two different points in time, the way that their lines bleed into each other’s showcases the cyclical nature of relationships and love. For all of the album’s frequent high points, there are some relatively dull tracks on And Then Life Was Beautiful. “Nothing’s For Sure,” is a redundant song that fails to provide any sort of uniqueness, and “Amazing Grace” is a mostly satisfying closer. Nevertheless, between teases of a choir and lines specifically inspired by the classic hymn, there is definitely more to be desired from the gospel influences on “Amazing Grace.”
Nao has quickly become one of the sharpest and most consistent artists of this generation. Her commitment to the fullness of storytelling and her marvelous voice have helped her craft yet another exquisite album.
Key Tracks: “Messy Love” | “Wait” | “Burn Out” | “Better Friend” | “Good Luck”