Jorja Smith’s Lost & Found is the kind of debut record that is prime to collapse under the weight of its own hype. Only two years ago, the West Midlands-bred, London-based singer posted a song called “Blue Lights” on her SoundCloud page, a melancholy mediation on police brutality and racial violence that sampled “Sirens” by Dizzee Rascal and cemented Smith as a new voice to watch on the UK R&B scene. Since then, she has placed fourth in the BBC Sound of 2017 poll, won this year’s Brit Awards Critic’s Choice, garnered heaps of praise from hip-hop luminaries such as Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy, and collaborated with Drake on his hit track “Get It Together”.
That’s a lot for an artist who has just turned 21, and, until relatively recently, was working a part-time job at Starbucks while trying to make her big city dreams come true. Though after one spin of Lost & Found, Smith’s inordinate amount of early acclaim reveals itself to be more than warranted. The album is a debut in the truest sense of the word: an introduction, a declaration, a compendium of Smith’s artistry up to this point, and a tantalizing taste of what’s to come.
But let’s go back to the beginning. It’s typically a sign of mediocre album material when an early single is included on a debut record years after the fact, but “Blue Lights” serves as such a strong message, both socio-politically and of Smith’s voice as an artist, that it makes perfect sense to include on Lost & Found. Building on a downright eerie sample of “Amour, Émoi… Et Vous” by French synth composers Guy Bonnet and Roland Romanelli, Smith’s voice pierces through the foggy keyboards with all the determination of bright-eyed youth: “I wanna change those blue lights into strobe lights,” she laments, echoing the thoughts of so many black people of her generation. The track’s breakbeat and record scratches gives it a resolutely ’90s feel, which is helped along by Smith’s lilting, almost sensuous vocals.
The exuberance of youth experienced in hindsight is a central theme to Lost & Found, as the record is peppered with references to high school, first loves, uncertainty, and emotional growth. The bulk of the songs were written when Smith was a teen, observing her friends and early objects of her affection, and the album showcases a confessional aspect, like a window into Smith’s philosophies on love and life. The best example of this is the appropriately titled “Teenage Fantasy”, a lushly produced, hip-hop-tinged track, which sees Smith debating on her premature relationships with refreshed focus as a young adult. “We all want a teenage fantasy/Want it when we can’t have it/When we got it when don’t seem to want it,” she sings, illustrating a very simple point that many people twice her age seem to forget on a regular basis. Some of the lyrics can be a little clunky: “You were the topic of my lunchtimes,” smacks a little to much of a teenage diary entry. But overall, “Teenage Fantasy” could turn out to be Smith’s calling card, a mid-tempo track with a strong pop hook, but exuding an authenticity that has been lacking from the charts for a while now.
Speaking of authenticity, the thumbprints of many R&B, pop, and hip-hop artists can be found on Lost & Found: Lauryn Hill’s laid-back flow, Solange’s righteous personality, Sade’s unwavering stillness, Jessie Ware’s penchant for edgy love ballads, even Fiona Apple’s aching depth at moments. A very clear reference is Amy Winehouse, an influence that Smith has even acknowledged herself, especially in reference to her career trajectory (“Did Amy Winehouse have a hit single from Frank?,” she asked the Guardian recently. ”I personally am not bothered about that.”). While we all know how it all went down with Amy, Jorja possesses (at least in its incubatory form) a kernel of the headstrong star power that made Amy such a brilliant artist. Indeed, there are no chart-toppers on Lost & Found, and you get the pointed impression that it’s by design. Smith isn’t interested in the top of the pops: she wants to pour her heart onto vinyl, slather it with her tears, and unleash it upon the world.
Vocally, Smith is still figuring out where her strengths are – sometimes she slips into a comfortable contralto, other times she strives to hit notes that end up cutting the power of her voice short. That being said, the qualities of her voice are already unique to her, and more than anything else, the space she needs to grow can be seen as an exciting teaser of music to come instead of something that’s fundamentally lacking. Ironically for an R&B vocalist, the song where Smith’s personality shines through the brightest is “Lifeboats (Freestyle)” a straightforward hip-hop track buoyed by a playful jazz guitar, where Smith raps the verse and sings the hook, borderlining on spoken word. You can almost picture her jotting down the lyrics in a spiral notebook, crossing out words and adding lines in the margins. The track has a simple freshness that is at the core of what makes Lost & Found such an exciting, provoking, and personal record: each song is an utterly engaging portrait of a talented young woman quite literally finding her voice.