Thanks in part to her classical voice training, British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith attacks even the most challenging vocal runs with precision, while at the same time making it all sound organic and effortless. Her voice is silky yet barbed with solemnity, rendering her profound heartbreak and joy palpable to the listener. It's a potent tool for storytelling that's present during every moment, both golden and dull, of her debut album, Lost & Found.
The title track opens with a heady whirlwind of guitar, keyboard, bass, and Smith's birdsong falsetto. Emerging from the haze, her voice croons a melody that feels timeless, blanketed by a swell of strings and honeyed keys: “I never thought I would ever find/Something so assured but so fine.” This fusion of jazz and soul, which has earned Smith comparisons to Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, characterizes her songwriting at its most entrancing, and the lush instrumentation sets the tone for the rest of the album.
A condemnation of the havoc police brutality wreaks on the psyches of black youth, “Blue Lights” was written by Smith for a high school project on post-colonialism and grime music, and then later recorded and uploaded to SoundCloud as her debut single. The somber “Teenage Fantasy,” which features background vocals recorded by a then-16-year-old Smith while she was babysitting, similarly delivers introspective words of wisdom beyond the singer's years: “When we are young, we all want someone/Who we think is the one, just to fit in.” These early songs demonstrate how the insight Smith imparts in her lyrics and the maturity of her singing are seemingly incompatible with her age. It's striking when, at the end of “Teenage Fantasy,” Smith breaks out of her wistful musings with a childlike giggle.
With her debut album, Lost & Found, Jorja Smith taps into a well of innovative, open-wounded songwriting.
On the jaunty “Lifeboats (Freestyle),” Smith delivers her message in a tongue-in-cheek rap that darts around producer Tom Misch's warm, springy guitar work: “So why are all the richest staying afloat?/Seeing all my brothers drowning even though they nicked the boat.” Smith's rap is a rare treat, but the lighthearted musical arrangement makes her socially conscious lyrics feel tame—at least compared to the biting commentary of “Blue Lights.”
Lost & Found concludes with an anticlimactic string of stripped-down tracks. Smith's vocal on “Goodbyes” is ethereal, gliding gracefully to atmospheric heights, but the minimal arrangement of stark acoustic guitar makes the song feel unfinished following the sweeping soundscapes of prior tracks. “Don't Watch Me Cry” is similarly bare, and its melody, though expressively sung by Smith, is easily forgotten. At times, it's as if Smith's sheer vocal talent becomes a crutch that restrains her from treading into riskier musical terrain. A large part of the singer's allure derives from her vocal prowess, but she sacrifices invention here, letting the album fizzle out too quietly.
Smith is at her best when she reinterprets classic R&B sounds and experiments with the color of her voice—like when she ventures into her lower register on “Wandering Romance,” bringing to mind the smoky dimensions of Aaliyah's voice. At the end of the delicate “February 3rd,” Smith interrupts her hushed singing with a plainspoken observation: “I've been lost, I've been lost again and I've been found/Then I found myself, but I'm constantly finding myself.” This sentiment of constant mutability and self-definition is central to Lost & Found's sense of redemption: Despite the album's shortcomings, its lasting power lies in the fact that Smith manages to tap into that well of innovative, open-wounded songwriting, if only fleetingly.