Today is Jorja Smith’s birthday. She is 21 years old.
Twenty-one is not an age that typifies maturity, or confidence, or patience. Twenty-one is where you’re just figuring out your place in the world; 21 is an age of endless possibility and paralyzing fear, a gateway to adulthood, the age at which “the rest of your life” has started, with all the crushing implications and expectations that come with that realization.
Jorja Smith sounds as though she has bypassed all of that. She sings like she was born knowing how, and her writing isn’t far behind.
Lost & Found is an album years in the making — it includes “Blue Lights”, a single Smith released back in 2016, as well as “Teenage Fantasy” and “Where Did I Go?”, which have both been kicking around since last year. The construction of the album, not to mention the individual songs, is infused with patience and care. This patience is on display immediately in the opening title track. It fades in, gentle and languid, offering an introduction that meticulously avoids a big splash, even waiting a full 40 seconds before introducing a beat, a minute and a half before the first verse actually starts. Smith vocalizes and ad-libs to that point, gently demonstrating the strength and control she has in her voice before that voice ever jumps to the front of the mix. And then, when Smith herself finally does step into the spotlight, we hear a voice that evokes passing thoughts of Adele, of Lily Allen, of Martina Topley-Bird. The mellow jazz-R&B backdrop is perfect for her tone, painting images of smoke-obscured clubs and black-tie fashion. It’s a stunning start.
Songs like “Lost & Found” are all over the album. “February 3rd” rides minimal percussion and a less-is-more bassline to spotlight Smith’s words — vague but evocative poetry, like “It won’t work if it don’t make sense at all / I’m so lost that I can’t see through the fold / The same stains that were left from the cherry wine / The same stains that I wish we could both rewind” — and a voice that switches effortlessly from low to high register. “Goodbye” switches the instrumentation to a simple acoustic guitar, over which Smith sounds like a natural songsmith. “Wandering Romance” floats along without percussion, an almost stream-of-consciousness performance whose structure only reveals itself after a few listens.
There are tracks that remind us of Smith’s age in the best possible way. “Blue Lights” uses gentle-but-crisp percussion — think early Massive Attack — to support a song that tries to reconcile the necessity of and the danger inherent in the presence of police with the searching sincerity that youth can bring. “Teenage Fantasy” punctuates a mature rumination on the expectation and reality of love with a little bit of playfulness on the melody and a giggle. “Lifeboats (Freestyle)” is a fine crack at hip-hop, where we get to hear Smith rap a bit over a spare beat and some expert jazz guitar from fellow up-and-comer Tom Misch. For all the maturity on display, there is also a sense of exploration here. Somehow, not a single experiment falls flat.
Perhaps the only criticism to be levied here is that Smith’s writing hasn’t quite caught up to her performance chops. Few of the songs leave a lasting impact beyond the thrill of hearing Smith perform them. Her songs tend to deal in generalities, hiding personal experience behind metaphor, raw emotion behind seasoned production. There isn’t a single clunker on Lost & Found, granted, but there’s also not a single track here that’s a lock to elevate Smith to the sort of international superstardom that a voice like hers is destined for.
While the songs on Lost & Found may not be perfect, however, it is still an astounding and appealing debut from an artist we’re bound to be hearing from for a long time. This is not a first album that sounds like a first album; it is a first album that sounds like it came from an artist who has been doing this for years and years, an artist who already has award shows and headlining tours in her rear view mirror. As such, it’s hard to keep from seeing those things in Jorja Smith’s future. Lost & Found is a revelation.