Music by VICE

Jorja Smith Plays It Safe Yet Plays to Win

Her debut album, 'Lost & Found,' showcases her incredible voice but comes close to dragging in near-constant slow jam territory.

by Tshepo Mokoena
Jun 11 2018, 2:30pm

Photo via PR

When Jorja Smith served coffee in Starbucks as a teenager, she used to tell customers that one day she’d make it as a singer. She’d play them songs off her phone. They’d respond enthusiastically, probably in cracking Walsall accents. In a matter of years, she pulled it off. Major Drake and Kendrick Lamar co-signs, picked up on her More Life and Black Panther soundtrack appearances, helped her hoist American audiences onto the pile of her growing British fanbase. Low-key sexist rumours about her and Drake shagging—pegged to this incredible photo of him posing in her local Co-op last February—threw her name into the tabloid and gossip blog pit. She came fourth in the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll, nabbed by R&B singer Ray BLK. She won the BRITs’ Critics Choice Award in January this year.

Everything’s been teeing her up for success. And, let’s be real, she deserves Big Name Status: as I’ve already said, when I interviewed her almost exactly a year ago, her voice is a thing of beauty. She wields it as an instrument, relaxing and tensing her vocal chords to produce just the right texture, as a guitarist would scrape a stretched string against the wooden neck of their guitar for a twanging bend. And now, fans wanting more from her than 2016’s Project 11 EP and a smattering of singles finally have her debut album, Lost & Found, saved on their preferred music streaming app.

The album, released last Friday, presents Jorja in a way that’s decidedly mid-tempo, and as a result, ploughs firmly against trend. Though the songs, several of them leaning into ballad territory, have full sing-a-long appeal, they’re also somewhat… non-committal. Jorja’s voice is always Jorja, but the songwriting here seems to be shooting for a broader appeal. There are elements of jazz shot through with pop, recalling early Amy Winehouse (one of Jorja’s idols)—see “February 3rd” and single “Teenage Fantasy.” Her vocal trills ooze R&B. Piano-heavy production on tracks like “Tomorrow” leans back languidly into lounge-lite soul. Bizarrely, she’s a perfect all-rounder onto whom listeners can project an amorphous, pleasantly beautiful vision. And that can flit from Adele-ballad-belter to garage and 2-step revivalist (not heard on the album, but on previous single “On My Mind”) to mid-thirties dinner party playlist. Underlying all of it is her talent, which could do with the stronger songwriting she’s likely to develop as she matures.

Let me just get ahead of your eye roll and say that I know comparing a newer artist to Adele is lazy. But Jorja occupies a similar place, in the corner of British pop that leans on emotional heft meted out by a facsimile of soul music. Adele and Sam Smith have been some of the country’s biggest recent exports in this vein, with their ability to enchant everyone from a teen going through their first breakup to an uncle who just likes to crank up a ballad on his drive home from work. For both artists, showcasing their vocals has come before innovative production or particularly inventive songwriting: the point of an Adele or Smith hit is to make you feel something, not make your ears prick up at the jolt of an unusual chord progression.

And so Jorja is unlike lots of the other pop-R&B artists of the moment, to whom she’s sometimes compared—the likes of Mabel, Kelela, Daniel Caesar, Mahalia. She recalls the ‘not quite of this era, is she?’ outsider approach of Amy Winehouse, who came out with her jazzy slow jams at a time when pop music was sifting through the dregs of bubblegum pop manufactured groups, or just starting to dig into Evanescence and Avril Lavigne pop-rawk. But Amy didn’t really pick up wide recognition until she’d paired her sharp lyrical insight with the darker themes that later satisfied a voyeuristic urge in both her fans and critics. Jorja doesn’t share that story. Lost & Found instead trades in musings on love that, at their most simplistic moments, really show that most of this album was written by a teenager. The title track includes loose questions like: “Are we really too young to be having so much fun?” before continuing: “‘Cos I'm not quite sure right now / I don't really understand how / I am ever really gonna be in love with you / 'Cos I never even thought you would want me too.” It’s all quite literal, written in the short, self-explanatory style of a diary entry.

Jorja initially grabbed people’s attention with “Blue Lights” (above). Based on a composite of real-life stories from guys she knew, the 2016 single functions as a commentary on how easily young black men and boys are criminalised in the eyes of law enforcement. That’s one of a few more uptempo tracks on this album, and one of a couple of songs—the most notable being “Lifeboats (Freestyle)”—that looks beyond matters of the heart and romance. The rest manages to straddle Radio 1, 1Xtra and maybe even Radio 2 all at once. You can already imagine tweets and Insta stories flooding in about how #relatable “The One” or “Wandering Romance” will be for her fans.

By writing an album focused on a topic as big and universal as love, Jorja’s made a piece of work that can soundtrack both post-breakup fortitude and a dinner party meal cooked from scratch using a really complicated Ottolenghi recipe. It speaks to her honest experience, though isn’t presented as being strictly autobiographical. It’s also nicely positioned for Love Island montages depicting fake tanned women from the seaside crying over men they’ve known for four days—and that’s not an exaggeration: Stormzy-featuring standalone single “Let Me Down” has already been synced in this year’s edition of the ITV2 reality show.

You can tell Jorja grapples with mostly writing slow songs—it’s the key theme of a recent piece from The Cut. In it, at one point during a gig she asks a crowd whether she’s boring them with her largely down-tempo set. But elsewhere, she’s confident, telling journalist Allison P Davis, “I know I can sing; I can sing and I like how I sound. I believe a voice is a voice. I could wear a box on my head and still have a good voice.” Judging by how much she’s invested in writing this album, and how well she’s shown her skills to date, Lost & Found will do well.

Lost & Found runs in the opposite direction to most pop written in the streaming age, where you’re meant to grab the listener within the first 26 seconds and keep their heart pumping for the next three minutes, so they smash repeat. By “Goodbyes,” a deeply personal song about death and grief, the album feels ready to wrap up. But it continues with two more songs, both stripped-back and hinged on piano, which feel almost like false alarms, signalling an end that doesn’t yet arrive. Making an album that feels as though it drags is a gamble. If it pays off, Jorja will become one of those timeless artists. If not, she may well still enjoy a healthy career for years. Either way, the girl from Walsall behind the Starbucks counter can always say she made it.

You can find Tshepo thinking about the Walsall Co-Op on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.