Undeniable (released August 16, 2019)
As a fan, reviewer, critic and all-around curmudgeon, the most fun thing about music is discovery – that moment when you’re blindsided by a song that becomes an instant favorite. In 1984 it was Sheila E’s “Glamorous Life.” 1998 it was Kelly Price’s “Friend of Mine.” In ’01 it was Amerie’s “Why Don’t We Fall in Love” and ’07 it was Janelle Monae’s “Sincerely, Jane.”
Last year, that song was Nao Yoshioka’s “I Love When,” an infectious cut that landed at No. 15 on our Greatest R&B songs of 2018 list.
While Yoshioka may have been new to me, she ain’t new to the game. The Japanese soul singer’s third album, The Truth, is what really started to turn heads stateside, and that momentum continues with her fourth release, Undeniable, a warm reminder of the brand of neo-soul that defined the early 2000s.
Album opener “Got Me” is an immediate throwback to R&B’s glory days, down to the soaring ad-libs that close out the track. Yoshioka is a student of the game for sure.
To that end, Undeniable, bucks the current R&B trends of moody themes, heavy hip-hop overtones and shouty lyrics. The mood is refreshingly positive, the atmosphere light and the direction is uplifting. Yoshioka pushes it to the limit Scarface style on “Boundaries” and she brushes off insecurities and keeps her head to the sky on “Liberation,” where the soaring production and hand claps almost makes it feel like a praise break by the end of the track.
“Celebrate” is wonderfully jazzy as well, feeling almost Sade-esque in its structure while “Loyalty” is a breezy affirmation of love. “I want to give you my devotion/you feel me up with sweet emotion/equality, reciprocity.”
I think this is the first time I’ve heard the word “reciprocity” on a track since Lauryn Hill schooled y’all in ’98.
Yoshioka, SOMEHOW, even remains a sweetheart when breaking up with dudes. On “About U,” she goes back and forth with guest Eric Roberson, saying “It’s cool if you need some space, start yellin’ in my face, I’d yell at me if I were you.” Erro is just as gentle, replying, “rather than place the blame, let’s just replace the pain.”
Maturity in R&B! How I’ve missed you.
Yoshioka’s vocals aren’t overwhelming powerful but they’re the perfect fit for those type of sultry tracks. “Up and Away” is another great duet, this time with PHER, and “All in Me” again showcases that her understated tone works great in the right environments. I guess it’s no surprise that she’s so quick to embrace ballads as well – both “Love Me” and “Where I A Supposed to Be” feel lifted from another era, in a good way.
If there’s one thing missing from Undeniable it’s a little sonic diversity. Don’t get me wrong, she picks up the pace at times with tracks like “Don’t Deny Me,” but I’d love to hear her cut loose a little more like she did with “I Love When.” We know she has the chops to do it and it would have provided variety in spots where the album’s tracks start feeling too similar.
The album concludes with “What’s Out There,” which feels like her own version of Darnell Donell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be.” But, as always, she even turns THAT into a positive: “If there is something more I should be living for, how can I just ignore what’s out there for me?”
For neo-soul fans hungry for a sound that’s becoming increasingly rare, Nao is willing to keep the flame burning.
No need to ignore what’s already out here. If it’s soul you want, Yoshioka’s got you.
Best tracks: “About U,” “Up and Away,” “Loyalty”