Smith eschews hits for wandering romance on her impressively uncompromising debut.
Jorja Smith’s 2017 release “On My Mind” was a perfect single; a slice of UK garage nostalgia that repackaged the singer’s intimate soul as glitchy, upbeat dance music. It seemed like a smart play for radio support that didn’t contradict Smith’s strengths and hinted at new possibilities for the singer. Surprisingly, it’s nowhere to be found on her debut album Lost & Found -- more surprisingly, the project is all the better for it.
Rather than pumping up the pop ambitions of her album with potential hits, Smith, who turned 21 this week, has steered away from danceable tempos altogether. “They’re like: ‘Write a fast song, write a fast song!’ No! I don’t want to,” she told the Guardian. "I write what I want to write. ‘Upbeat songs get played on the radio.’ So? And they want me to work with certain producers who’ve made hits, but just because they had a major hit doesn’t mean they’ll have another one.” As it turns out, the dreamy grooves of Jorja’s 2016 debut single “Blue Lights” are a much better indicator of her focus. The Dizzee Rascal-sampling track that first brought Smith attention through its incisive social commentary introduced a voice that was immediately striking; backed by serious power but always carefully controlled. It’s one of a few familiar tracks included on the project that insists Smith, as young as she is, has had a clear vision of her debut from the genesis of her career. “Teenage Fantasy,” a song released last year, which Smith reportedly wrote at age 16 while babysitting, is also present. Despite being written from the perspective of an adolescent, its central dilemma of wanting what one can’t have in relationships is evergreen, and speaks to Smith’s wise-beyond-her-years musings across the love-lorn album. The jazzy belter of a song is perhaps the closest Smith comes to resembling the late Amy Winehouse, who she has recently earned comparisons to. While her timeless vocal style and astute observations on love are similarly charismatic to Amy’s, Lost & Found carves out a sonic ground that positions Smith outside of Winehouse’s traditionalism.
Smith’s style can glide anywhere between the decadent R&B of Sade to the neo-soul of Erykah Badu, but she’s best when she’s occupying the center of her scope. This happens primarily in the mid-section of Lost & Found. “On Your Own” is led by bright piano chords and flirts with a dancehall rhythm in its pre-chorus. The tension breaks with an ascendant hook that stands as one of Jorja’s most powerful vocal performances across the project despite being one of the most purely vulnerable in its documentation of loneliness. It’s the first of a couplet of songs written with Joel Compass, a musician Smith is currently dating -- though their relationship was more precarious during the composition. That stress and uncertainty is even more clear on “The One,” which begins with spare, James Blake-esque piano and white noise, only to be swept off its feet by a bassline that nods to Portishead. “It was a sad session, because I was writing about not wanting to be with him but really liking him. It’s such an honest song -- we were talking to each other through the session. When we played it back, I swear a tear came down my face,” she confessed in an interview with Billboard. The context makes the lyrics all the more clear, finding Smith in a place where she resents her own feelings: “I don't want to need no one / I'm not tryna let you in / Even if I've found the one.”
Though it subtly shifts gears throughout, Lost & Found is a rare pop debut that never overstretches or panders. As a result, there aren’t the peaks and valleys you’d find on an album built around clear-cut singles, which means there aren’t any euphoric highs, but not a single dud either. It closes with an intimate four-song stretch that feels earned in a way that ballad-heavy side-Bs rarely do. At this point, Smith provides a breath of fresh air on “Lifeboats,” a song that’s equal parts Lauryn Hill and Lily Allen, and references Hill’s “Mystery Of Iniquity,” the sample source for Kanye West’s “All Falls Down.” After eight tracks of heavy emotional lifting, it’s a welcome bright spot that addresses many of the same themes with a more light-hearted charm. Cutting the production down to an acoustic guitar and simple drum beat, it opens a pocket of the album that relies heavily on Jorja’s voice to carry through the more simple arrangements. “Goodbye” gives way to delicate falsetto coos that show her versatility as a vocalist, while “Don’t Watch Me Cry” is a solo piano ballad that seems destined to be a show-closer for years to come. With many women in pop and R&B being forced into the mold of hit-making to the detriment of their careers, Smith’s debut proves that playing the long game may have the biggest payoff. It often makes for the best art too.