In the seven years since Jorja Smith released her starmaking debut single ‘Blue Lights’ to widespread acclaim, the Walsall born singer has had a stop-start career. Shortly after ‘Blue Lights’ – and before she was even 20 – Smith collaborated with both Drake and Stormzy before releasing her debut album Lost & Found in 2018 which while polished and spotlighted her astonishing voice, was lacking in variety and emotion. Now, five long years later, Smith has followed up Lost & Found with the far more expansive Falling or Flying.
Before making Falling or Flying, Smith moved back to the West Midlands from London, keen to refind her true self and with that create music that was truly hers. Falling or Flying was intended to be unadulterated Jorja Smith without the interference of executives, so-called tastemakers and, yes, men. The album is produced in its entirety by fellow Walsall natives DameDame* (who are otherwise anonymous) and the intimacy between the production duo and Smith is reflected in the experimentation at play – a stark contrast to Lost & Found which was an LP of moving if unoriginal ballads.
Each of the sixteen tracks (which include a couple of skits) sit sonically apart, but have a distinct through-line thematically. There are low-tempo jazzy jams that are the spine of her sound like ‘Broken is the Man’, but then it is Smith’s acceleration into parts unknown that really thrill. There is more than an undercurrent of afrobeats on the album especially on standout J Hus collaboration ‘Feelings’ whereas ‘Go Go Go’ is fused with alternative rock and ‘Greatest Gift fully embraces reggae.
In the hands of a less confident artist, Falling or Flying would feel scattered as it blends several potentially competing sounds but Smith’s luscious voice (which has perhaps unfairly been compared to Amy Winehouse – they’re very different artists) and intimate lyrics on the ruminations of breakups, self-determination and womanhood bind it together as one cohesive and often spellbinding whole.
Smith is upfront about her contradictions and inner turmoil and her lyrics punch with a greater rawness than anything since ‘Blue Lights’. ‘On Broken is the Man’, Smith is agonisingly pointed about a failed romance: “I wish you found the man that you thought I’d want to be with/I wish you found the man that you thought I should have been with.” And later in the song she is more nakedly honest about the relationship seemingly turning abusive – at least in an emotional sense: “I met a man/Did everything he could to put me down/Just to build me right back/I was never broken.” It’s the realest and most personal Smith has ever been on record.
Like contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic such as Solange or RAYE, Smith is not in the business of being a popstar and has allowed her talents to simmer on a low heat – an against the grain approach in the speed of light days of 2023 where musicians are expected to commit to a ceaseless existence in the limelight in search of TikTok virality.
It is almost frustrating that she has not been more prolific in recent years, especially when she appears to find putting together top class songs so easily. But then, when the wait eventually brings an album with the quality of Falling or Flying, Smith can take all the time in the world.