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The Scarlet & Black

NAO and Kweku Collins charm the college crowd

Photo by Garrett Wang
Photo by Garrett Wang
Photo by Garrett Wang

Halley Freger

On Tuesday, Sept., 20, Gardner Lounge was once again transformed into a club while showcasing two up-and-coming artists. Students were transfixed as London-based singer-songwriter NAO and rapper, singer and producer Kweku Collins put on a high-energy concert.

Kweku Collins is no stranger to Grinnell — last hear he played a show with two other young rappers, Milwaukee’s IshDarr and Grinnell’s Young Eddy. Back then, he was a recent high school graduate who traveled to Grinnell from Evanston, Illinois, a suburb that borders Chicago. This week he returned to Grinnell as part of a major North American tour with internationally renowned artist NAO.

During his set, Collins took a moment to celebrate before performing “Ghost,” which recently hit over 1,000,000 plays on Spotify. This song comes off of his 2016 LP “Nat Love,” whose name is a reference to the former slave, cowboy and author. Nodding to a famous black folk hero, Collins creates his own autobiographical account of growing up outside Chicago.

Although Collins’s music tackles intense subjects, often in philosophical ways, it also feels effortless. His beats aren’t overpowering, but subdued, complementing his smooth voice and highlighting his intricate lyricism. On his track “Death of a Salesman,” he sings in a conversational style. It’s unsettling to hear Collins sing, almost nonchalantly, “Murder, murder, the crows are calling/ We see the news, yeah, we know what’s good.” The systemic oppression and murder of black people is something he has to deal with and fear in his everyday life. When he introduced this song, he spoke out against Donald Trump and anyone who doesn’t want brown or black people in this country.

When Neo Jessica Joshua, who performs under the name NAO, took the stage, there was a palpable excitement in the crowd. Although she’s been releasing her own music since 2014, she received massive exposure from her features, such as on Disclosure’s 2015 track “Superego,” which she helped write and sang on.

NAO’s voice is simply iconic. Her rich soprano sounds as if a computer has altered it. In the internet age where genres such as PC Music are popular, NAO’s bright, synthetic textures are irresistible. She studied vocal jazz at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and her training is evident in her skillful control of her voice. On her crushing track “Bad Blood,” she suddenly drops into a very deep register and then right back up again. Throughout the song, her voice is often percussive, mimicking the catchy beat of the synths.

Her set mostly included songs from her new album “For All We Know.” Although the album has a polished pop sound, NAO’s style is also very experimental. NAO’s self-described “wonky funk” is created with the help of her band, which includes guitar, bass, synth, keys and drums. She combines a variety of sounds that often sound heavy and industrial and contrast against her bright vocals. Her album, despite its clean production, feels intensely focused on process. Throughout the album, there are short interludes composed of voice memo recordings from rehearsals. We get a sense of her creative process and the album as an exploration of sounds.

NAO took few breaks between songs and seemed to be in the zone. However, she did take a break to tell the audience that she felt like she was at a “secret show.” Perhaps she was just referring to the fact that she was playing in a tiny basement, but something about this show did feel especially intimate. Many people in the audience emotionally sang along. There’s a specific and surreal feeling that results from being so close to NAO’s ethereal voice.

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