School coursework has little to no bearing to where most of us are right now. For Jorja Smith, however, it proved to be everything. Influenced by research she was doing in school about racial discrimination towards fellow students, she dropped a Dizzee Rascal-sampling number on Soundcloud in early 2016. It was picked up by Stormzy and Skrillex upon release (she attracts fans in high places, and in March 2017 linked up with Drake on a couple of choice cuts his ‘More Life’ “playlist”). Ever since, she’s been plotting a global takeover.
It culminates in this, ‘Lost & Found’, the Walsall native’s debut album, which comes off the back of a pretty magnificent year. She dropped huge garage-banger ‘On My Mind’ in September, bagged the BRITs Critics Choice Award in February and ended up co-writing a song with Kendrick Lamar on the acclaimed Black Panther soundtrack that same month. Few rising British acts have had a meteoric rise quite as rapid as Smith’s.
It’s disappointing, then, that ‘Lost & Found’ doesn’t match those dizzying heights. The album’s peak is still her breakout single, the languid ‘Blue Lights’, which proves that Smith is not just an elite performer, but a relatable songwriter who can pair issues like racial profiling (“You better not run ’cause the sirens not coming for you/What have you done?) and getting ticked off at school (“Kept after class for answering back/You apologized, where’s the harm in that?”).
Her last two singles, the throwback ‘On My Mind’ – a up-tempo pop hit that’s her most exhilarating work to date– and weighty Stormzy collaboration ‘Let Me Down’, have both been left off this album. Instead, it often relies too heavily on the jazz-tinged R&B formula she mastered with ‘Lost & Found’. This is a shame, because the record is far more entertaining when she deviates from the template. Take ‘Lifeboats (Freestyle)’, on which Smith ups the pace for an energetic, politically-charged freestyle that references the migrant crisis in Europe: “If there’s a reason we can stay afloat/Why do we watch them drown?” The personality she displays here far beats out the vague sloganeering on songs like ‘Goodbyes’: (“Goodbyes, good times/L O V E is all for you“).
It’s clear that Smith has done her homework, though, with shades of icons such as Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse scattered throughout the album. This is most notable on ‘February 3rd’, where her soothing voice is pushed to its limit over a glitchy, playful beat that’d sit nicely on James Blake’s debut album. ‘Where Did I Go?’, meanwhile, is a sleek combination of wicked melodies and bouncing beats.
Smith’s made the grade on this serviceable first record ‘Lost & Found’, and the path to her becoming Britain’s next global export is looking pretty clear. If only it was made to feel less of a drag.