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Jorja Smith - Lost & Found Music Album Reviews

Jorja Smith - Lost & Found Music Album Reviews
The precocious 20-year-old singer fuses R&B, soul, and trip-hop on a debut album that documents her ongoing quest to discover who she is and how she fits into a troubled world.

“Why do we fall down with innocence?” Jorja Smith wonders on the opening title track of Lost & Found. The 20-year-old English singer’s deeply personal debut is full of impressionistic questions like this, yet she never demands easy answers. Her approach to seeking self-knowledge is compassionate and patient, demonstrative of a keen intellect and rich with precocious wisdom.

“I need to grow and find myself before I let somebody love me/Because at the moment I don’t know me,” she admits on “Teenage Fantasy.” On “February 3rd,” she reflects, “I’m constantly finding myself.” But she doesn’t seem worried about the final result of that search. Smith makes the restlessness of young adulthood sound elegant.

That self-assurance is what makes her special, and what makes her music sound timeless. “I know what I’m doing,” she told Pitchfork last year, and her music reflects that independence. After emerging in 2016 with the commanding Project 11 EP and finishing fourth on the BBC’s Sound of 2017 list, she employed expert restraint in picking her next moves: two features on Drake’s More Life, a solo placement on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, a handful of cool collabs, and a few stellar standalone singles. The further she descended into herself, in disarmingly sincere ballads and DIY music videos, the higher her star rose.

Comprising a brisk but dense 12 songs (including four previously released tracks and several others Smith has teased live), Lost & Found is the biggest test to date of Smith’s commitment to making music on her own terms. The result is a bold statement of artistic purpose. There’s nothing resembling “On My Mind,” her infectious 2017 collaboration with Preditah, nor does Smith seem to be taking cues from contemporary pop radio. She’s doing things her way.

While Project 11 often resembled Amy Winehouse’s Frank, Lost & Found forges a more original sound, incorporating adult contemporary, R&B, acoustic folk, jazz, dancehall, and even gospel (on the stunning “Tomorrow”). But it’s most indebted to 1990s trip-hop in the vein of Portishead and Massive Attack. The instrumentals on “Lost & Found,” “Teenage Fantasy,” and standout single “Where Did I Go” rely on the same kind of downtempo, backbeat-laced grooves that so perfectly suited Morcheeba frontwoman Skye Edwards’ silky voice and breathless delivery. But Smith doesn’t whisper—she belts. Lost & Found thrives on emotionally raw minimalism, with her voice as the central instrument. Pure and soulful, it stretches like a rubber band, soaring between virtuosic Winehouse warmth and vertiginous, FKA twigs-style falsetto.

It’s an appropriately mutable centerpiece for an album centered on youthful searching and questioning. “Teenage Fantasy,” written when Smith was 16 and originally released in 2017, has her singing smokily about a good-for-nothing lover, only to unleash the full power of her voice in a poignant chorus so vehement, it feels like she’s delivering it through a megaphone: “We all want a teenage fantasy/Want it when we can’t have it/When we got it we don’t seem to want it.” This is a familiar sentiment, but Smith’s intensity gives it new resonance.

The previously unreleased track “On Your Own” could be a cut from Rihanna’s ANTI, with Smith’s howling vocals moving nimbly through dancehall drums and distortion. “The One” is even better and more surprising, employing morose piano and a Brazilian samba-tinged groove (anchored, like much of the album, by live instrumentation) that simultaneously encourage hip-swaying and wondering about your exes. “I’m not trynna let you in/Even if I found the one,” she warns a suitor. These songs help to build the convincing character of a young woman who is scowling and swaggering, only as vulnerable as she wants to be.

But Smith’s wanderings extend far beyond the personal, and it’s this insight and curiosity that elevate her work. “Blue Lights,” her 2016 debut single, resurfaces here; its heartbreaking and transporting take on police brutality and racial profiling remains a remarkable feat of storytelling. This time, Smith’s questions are posed rhetorically, to illuminate injustice: “What have you done?/There’s no need to run/If you’ve done nothing wrong/Blue lights should just pass you by.” “Lifeboats (Freestyle)” is a spoken-word take on privilege, income disparity, and the failures of the welfare state. “So why are all the richies staying afloat?/See all my brothers drowning even though they’re in the boat/Mothership ain’t helpin’ anyone,” she raps with the swagger of a young Lauryn Hill, indicting her government for its treatment of marginalized citizens and mishandling of the refugee crisis.

It’s not surprising that Smith resents comparisons to other artists, but her link to Hill is clear. Another wildly talented, young, black woman looking for clarity in a world built for everyone but her, Hill used her music to transform her pain into salvation. Just three years younger now than Hill was when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released, Smith shares her predecessor’s wounded takes on the world’s injustices and compulsion to search for deep truths.

On Miseducation’s luminous title track, Hill sings what could be Smith’s battle cry: “Deep in my heart, the answer, it was in me/And I made up my mind to define my own destiny.” On Lost & Found, Smith is defining her own destiny. In the process, she confirms that she is special and rare, an asker of impossible but necessary questions.

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