Jorja Smith Captures Teenage Fantasy on Debut Album ‘Lost & Found’

English soul singer Jorja Smith is one of those artists whose youthful creative energy seems to catapult them to the top with effortless grace. She caught the attention of Drake in 2016, going on to collaborate and tour with him, and creating plenty buzz in the process. Having been widely recognized as an artist-to-watch in the R&B realm, her debut album “Lost & Found” has been long-anticipated, and will strike most listeners as well worth the wait.

The opener, “Lost & Found,” begins with jazzy guitars of the softest category, bells and chimes, and daydream crooning, before a beat drops, and Smith eases into verbal form, instantly conjuring the spirit of Laurel Hill. It’s in her intonations, in the way she fluctuates her projections, and in the vaguely doo-wop influenced instrumental stylings of the backing track. The song is immensely mellow, and dreamy in a distinctly R&B way, setting the tone for the album. Smith’s vocal fluidity is instantly impressive, and the song ends with her blissfully singing “ooh,” much as she started, making the song seem like a little, clipped dream.

“Teenage Fantasy” follows seamlessly. The music is devoid of current pop trends, such as trap drums, vocal stutter effects, etc. This functions to give the music a ‘90s/’00s soul feel, although not in an intentionally retro way. It’s merely more classic than zeitgeisty. The song is full of reflective, nostalgic melancholy. Smith has charming, cascading melodies, and sounds like she sings every other word with pouty lips. “Where Did I Go,” is especially catchy, with the titular line, and ad libbed backing vocals really packing a punch. She says “Goodbye” with gusto, and a rather sadistic flirtiness in her tone. It’s an expressive breakup song, with a unique, light hearted feel.

“February 3rd” is full “slow jams” fare. Smith sounds as if sprawled out on linens, giddily brushing the covers about. There’s a spoken word snippet that reminds you that she’s English. It’s easy to forget, as she usually assumes the persona of R&B diva, largely an American stock character. The Englishness comes out more in the following track, “On Your Own,” in an almost-rapping segment. Like most UK hip-hop, Smith’s take has a distinctly Caribbean flavor. The rapping bit is a snippet, and most of the song features Smith singing, as usual. But it sounds less fixated with the generic US “urban” template, taking on a different character, with Smith’s voicings sometimes echoing the likes of Lykke Li.

“The One” has a vaguely bossa nova shuffle, and romantic string swells, making it arguably the most dreamy track. It’s as if Smith is steadily descending deeper into a fantasy as the album runs it course. “Wandering Romance” has a spacious arrangement, with a beat that shifts in and out, conveying the feeling of “wandering” in real time. There are stacked harmonies, reverberating interjections, and gospel style backing vocals.. “Blue Lights” has plenty old school flavour. The ambient jazzy instrumental stylings that characterize nearly every song are especially pronounced here. There’s more rapping/speaking, and some scratching towards the end, teasing the more overt hip-hop of the following song, “Lifeboats (Freestyle.)” It seems Smith is using the term, “freestyle” loosely; if not, she’s an amazing freestyle rapper. Most likely, she just means to indicate the song is “free” in its “style,” although this seems a strange choice of wording. It is a free-flowing song, however, looser than anything else. Smith demonstrates that she’s a skilled rapper, fluid and feisty, with a lot of character. The jazzy backdrop and vocal sensibilities make the song slightly reminiscent of The Pharcyde.

“Goodbyes” places Smith by acoustic guitar, making her whimsically expressive singing suddenly recall early Ani diFranco. “Tomorrow” is a cinematic tearjerker moment, casting Smith as a chaunteneuse over plaintive piano in an intimate setting, until a beat propels the song into gospel-tinged histrionics. “Don’t Watch Me Cry” brings the album to closure, with just Smith, piano, and occasional backing vocals. The lyrics, “A moment in time, don’t watch me cry,” are ironic, as the stripped-down instrumentation gives the sense of zeroing in on a moment in time, and Smith’s sentimentality appears to have reached its apex, putting her on display to the listener.

“Lost & Found” is an album of teenage-mentality love songs, with the exception of “Blue Lights” and “Lifeboats (Freestyle,)” which delve into social consciousness. The former features an especially memorable line, “I wanna turn those blue lights into strobe lights,” with “blue lights” referring to cop cars, and expressing the idea of positive energy channeling. Elsewhere, the lyrics are largely saccharine musings of petty intrigues, but with scattered moments of profundity. There’s a theme of the blurred line between fantasy and reality. In the titular track, Smith sings, “Focus and your dreams turn to reality / So tell me how am I ever gonna find love in you / If I do not even know what I want from you?” It’s the idea that you create your own reality through visualization, which implies that desire is a prerequisite to realization. In “Teenage Fantasy,” Smith reflects, “When we are young, we all want someone… There’s no need to rush, take your time,” but goes on to somewhat contradict herself, in “Where Did I Go?” reflecting, “Maybe this fate was overdue / Baby, it’s late and I’m confused.” There’s also a passive-aggressive mentality, with a cat-and-mouse narrative running through songs. In “On Your Own,” Smith commands, “Take it all / On your own tonight,” a remarkably similar sentiment to “Go on, take everything,” from Hole’s “Violet.” The mode of expression, however, couldn’t be more different — there’s no angst here, just soft “soulfulness.” In “Tomorrow,” Smith insists, “I won’t say goodbye,” contradicting her line from “Where Did I Go?” “Good, goodbye, goodbye.” In the closer, “Don’t Watch Me Cry,” she concludes, “Oh, it kills the most to say that I still care,” ending on the note than it’s really quite impossible to make sense of love, after all.  

All in all, Smith shines as a singer on this record, always sounding impressively emotive and confident. One arguably unsettling quality that she can seem as if trying too hard. It’s commonplace for singers to affect a baby-voice, or a tone in between a hum and a vocalization, for an especially intimate moment. Smith does this almost all the time, making her singing sometimes seem like an effusive onslaught. Still, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with excess — it might be your cup of tea. Overall, “Lost & Found” is a coherent, thoroughly realized artistic statement from a distinctive voice. Early releases from emergent talents are often scattered and restless, but this record showcases an artist who has found her niche and settled in comfortably.  

Lost & Found” is available June 8 on Apple Music.