Jazz musicians used to say the true test of a jazz musicians expressive ability was how they played ballads and slow tempos. One could similarly say as far as Funk, there is nothing quite like a slow, dirty tempo in bringing out all the various musical techniques and sensations we deem “funky.” Today’s post, “Zillionaire” by Nao, is a mean, sleek humper with a glossy, retro futuristic pop finish, like the space funk of Missy’s late ’90s work. Nao is a singer-songwriter based in the U.K, blessing us with our daily funk this weekend.
The song begins with a classic funky intro, the bass synthesizer and a higher pitched French horn-ish synth tone, playing a line in unison, but yet slightly and subtly emphasizing and falling on different beats. Behind that a kick drum sparingly plays in classic J Dilla/D’Angelo/Questlove style, sometimes slightly anticipating the second beat, other times reaching the egg just a hair before the “One.” In classic funk style, it’s important to set the groove up first, and the two bar phrase does that for four bars, then the beat drops, and when it does, it lays go go percussion all over the dance floor, with Nao singing some ad libs over the top. The kick drum continues on in that “slightly ahead/slightly late” style introduced by the great Jay Dee.
The groove keeps on churning, with Nao’s voice being phased as she sings and slap bass making it’s presence felt. Nao sings a story based on the idea of her having a lot of money and how she would use that to please her beloved, but she does not sing about purchasing material things so much as the vistas being “richer than a zillionaire” would open up. When She goes into the chorus the musical backdrop goes into more chaotic, freaky sounding electronic effects, very much like the type you’d hear in electronic based dance musics. The drumbeat under the chorus is also more straight forward in it’s rhythmic timing. After the first chorus the groove goes back to the synth bass and synth lead in unison, with some pitched 808 style drums adding texture. From 3:20 on, the track vamps out on a heavy, pure funk octave bass figure.
“Zillionaire” accomplishes something that makes me very happy, even though I know some other Funkateers might easily dismiss it. It’s a short, concise funk tune in the guise of a modern R&B/Pop song, a sleek, sexy, inviting Trojan horse to get the One back on the radio. Nao builds her 2015 Funk on top of the ideas and sounds of late ’90s/early 2000s R&B, the Rodney Jerkin’s, Brandy, Neptunes, Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Aaliyah side of it, artists who worked with electronics but had a great deal of Funk in their approaches. One thing I usually think about with a heavily programmed song like this, is how would the local Funk band that plays weddings handle it? I could see this groove being a very nasty vehicle for musicians to lay some grease over, a slow funk bomb like Rufus & Chaka’s “Tell Me Something Good.” As it stands I love Nao’s pretty voice, and the poetic imagery of her lyrics, over such a low down and nasty (as Robots can be) groove!