With her 2018 debut, Lost & Found, Jorja Smith established herself as one of the brightest and most creative young talents in the British contemporary soul scene. Though she waited five years before releasing her sophomore set, Smith didn’t stay quiet, releasing singles, touring, and scoring her first top 10 hit, “Be Honest”. The response to Lost & Found was so warm, and Smith was invited by audiences as a new star that she could be forgiven for taking time before putting out a second studio LP.
Well, the wait was worth it. Totally. Falling or Flying is a charming, likable effort, with Smith showing off an arresting talent with effortless ease and poise. Working primarily with the gifted duo DameDame (Edith Nelson and Barbara Boko), Smith has released a modern contemporary pop/R&B album boasting innovative and imaginative production. Falling or Flying works on many contradictions, the biggest one being that it’s such an emotionally resonant album despite its largely tech-heavy sound.
Though Falling or Flying sounds like a quintessentially London pop record, with its flourishes of house, dance, and skittery Black pop, Smith had to flee the Capital to make the album. London can be a lot – writer Sam Selvon characterized London as a city that divides “up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to, and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers”.
For Smith, finding a balance was crucial to her growth as an artist. “I needed to go home,” she said to Harpers Bazaar. “London is a bit too much. I’ve now got a better balance with the city. I go there for work. I’ve got friends there, but I love home.”
If quitting London for her native Walsall was necessary for her creative forces, the relief she experienced is palpable when listening to Falling or Flying. Her caramel-sweet vocals are dreamy and understated and reflect tranquility and confidence. Smith applies that aplomb to her soulful warbling and shares her thoughts and feelings as a songwriter, co-penning every track on the album.
Like many pop/R&B albums, particularly those released in the 21st century, Falling or Flying is a bit of a sprawl, with 16 tracks (including several brief interludes). But Smith and her songwriters are careful to keep each song at about three minutes, so instead of overstaying its welcome, Falling or Flying leaves its audiences wanting more. The beauty of Falling or Flying is in its understated simmer. Instead of wailing over high-octane tracks, Smith pitches her jazz-influenced croon low, her thoughtful voice caressing the lyrics, programmed beats, and atmospheric synths.
That’s not to say Jorja Smith’s album is a sedate affair or that she’s a chilly, aloof chanteuse. A seeming student of Sade, Smith is a stylist, appreciating luxuriating in the warmth of her voice.
One of the best tracks, “Little Things”, boasts a brisk, jazzy sound that combines the tones of a supper club and a nightclub. It’s not quite a jazz tune nor a dance tune, but a strange, yet intoxicating, compromise of the two. It’s a slow burn that never crashes through with a euphoric crescendo like most dance songs, and instead, Smith keeps her intensity at bay, as if she was forced to maintain control, afraid of losing it.
Smith injects some nervy energy into the quasi-rock “GO GO GO” that shimmies on some spirited guitar licks and dashing drums. There’s also some radio-friendly poppiness to the first single, “Try Me”, which trips on stuttering beats and is blessed with a catchy chorus and assertive lyrics. The smooth and sleek “She Feels” dances on a sinewy, shuffling beat.
Though these songs are high points, Falling or Flying is dominated by beautiful ballads, sensual slow jams, and some moody mid-tempo numbers. As with the faster numbers, the slower ones operate on the same, restrained level, with Smith eschewing the giant, extravagant pop ballad. It’s highly doubtful that the tracks will be heard on auditions for The Voice or American Idol. Smith’s tight, pinched vocals lend the songs a delicate elegance and economy. So, even in the cinematic “Backwards”, which has orchestral samples and lush strings, Smith never showboats, instead allowing for the natural break and throb in her voice to convey the pain and yearning in the lyrics.
In the classic soul of “Lately”, Smith conjures singers like Minnie Riperton, Syretta Wright, and Roberta Flack. The skipping beat is paired with a sweet acoustic guitar, Smith’s vocals are emphasized, and we’re gifted with hearing the little flecks, nicks, and nuances in that beautiful instrument. The arrangement is contained, and Smith imbues both desire, hope, and heartache with her considerable skills as a song stylist, using phrasing and exploring and discovering shades and tones in her voice to color the lyrics with various emotions and feelings.
The great thing about Falling or Flying is that although the songs are laced with the same-colored thread, each piece stands on its own. The record is quite an accomplishment and an excellent vehicle for the singer’s estimable talents. It’s a low-key yet unequivocal triumph.