Jorja Smith begins the opening track of her 2016 debut, Project 11, with a retrospective eulogy of a romantic mistake: “When I left I thought I would be stronger / but in fact it took away my energy / Hard to tell you that I could not see beyond the gates of this purgatory.”
In real time, the song plays out in an even more crushingly polarizing way. Of course, love and heartbreak cannot be wrapped up in four short lines, but the entirety of the complex emotional spectrum that those two ideas bookend is on display: regret, insecurity, lust, dependency, and doubt.
These are the ideas that Smith’s music wrestles with, from the opening lamentations of “Something in The Way” to her Stormzy-assisted new single “Let Me Down.” The Birmingham singer is gifted with soul-piercing vocals, the occasional falsetto uppercut, and a tragic beauty to her style. Yet, what truly makes her an artistic force to be reckoned with has always been her perspective musically.
At only 20 years of age, Smith is unlike nearly all of her musical counterparts. She doesn’t seem particularly drawn to the allure of pop sensationalism, often trading rousing anthems for slow-burning ballads. Her voice, while fantastic, isn’t as inherently unique as other burgeoning R&B stars like SZA and Daniel Caesar. Rather, entrenched in Smith’s appeal is her age and the way she articulates her perspectives on everything from heartache to loneliness through such a young, often transformative lens.
Whereas her contemporaries have thrived in channeling the warmth of love, like Caesar, or recollecting on the emptiness heartbreak can create, like SZA, Smith’s focus lies heavily on the chaos of the young heart. Jorja Smith creates nostalgia for the most youthful, and most naive, iterations of heartache past.
That chaoticism, the emotional kaleidoscope of wants, needs, and feelings that every young person experiences growing up, is the same allure that makes a young artist like Khalid so captivating. Khalid’s breakthrough debut, American Teen, made the most immature and naive thoughts and emotions of the young lover a relatable experience no matter the listener. Jorja Smith’s music, despite its stylistic differences, accomplishes that same feat.
Love—in particular, young love—despite its omnipresence in R&B, remains a difficult concept to accurately detail. The awkwardness of first crushes, the insecurity and fear of first sexual experiences, the constantly changing emotions we never fully learn how to wrangle, and the loneliness following a first breakup are experiences that are oftentimes too complicated for a person smack dab in the middle of those moments to process. Smith, like Khalid, and through a female lens, finds her best material when digging through some of the hardest emotions a person in their 20s could ever hope to understand.
Smith’s music doesn’t feel like you’re listening to her recollect on a distant memory of love; you’re listening in real-time as she grapples with the trials and tribulations of love. Project 11’s “Something in The Way” is a self-doubting, post-breakup mourning about codependency. “Lonely” deals with the crippling fallout once the anger and regret settle, while “Carry Me Home” and its preceding interlude tackle the pitfalls of loving others more than yourself. Each of these tracks bleeds in and out of each other effortlessly, and the fluidity creates a collage of emotions over just a small sequence of songs.
It isn’t just Smith’s one and only full-length project that allows listeners to enter such a universally painful and important experience, though. On the Preditah-produced “On My Mind,” Smith’s grooviest record to date, the Walsall, England native exudes a confidence that most in their 20s could only dream of having. There is a newfound bravado to her independence (“Why on earth would I leave, if you were everything I wanted you to be”), and no matter how much lyrics like “I finally found the wrong in you” resemble a bout of false hope that comes after we think we’ve finally “solved” love, her grip on such a complicated post-breakup experience remains moving.
After our first and earliest experiences with heartbreak, we often learn about our greatest strengths as independents. We search for the meaning we lost with someone else, and we rightfully displace it in progressing ourselves in life. For Smith, that actualization is present on both wax and on film. In the video for “Beautiful Little Fools,” her commentary on modern feminism and female empowerment, Smith dominates. From start to finish, your eyes never leave her sight, and for such a visual presence to come from a then-19-year-old is spellbinding.
No longer is Jorja Smith the young adult playing grown-up, naturally behaving as any young adult would; she’s a woman and fully realized person, built from the pieces of past love, she always wanted to be.
Smith’s appeal is so interesting because it doesn’t just connect to us in its most positive light, but also in our broken ones too. On her newest single, “Let Me Down,” Smith revisits that same pain from Project 11, but with an improved sense of self-detachment from the one who disappointed her.
She states early on that “Sometimes, I wouldn’t mind if I was less important,” and no longer are we surrounded by self-empowering lyrics of forgotten, failed lovers. Instead, we are thrust back into the world of fruitless love and endless heartbreak, but with a twist. This time, Smith’s displaced pain has carried over into resentment and anger. “Let Me Down” captures the pitfalls we have all once suffered through, in which we return to our darkest selves. With it, though, carry over the habits we had once buried, the insecurity and immaturity, and we revert back to our worst habits as lovers.
“Let Me Down” is not an emotional regression for Smith, but a useful reminder that what she brings to the table is the very real yet bumpy journey of figuring out what love should actually feel like. It’s traumatic, bipolar, fraught with moments of confidence that only seem to last until that next text from an ex, and, more than anything, necessary.
The R&B industry is littered with money grabs and squandered potential. Since the beginning of time, record labels have failed to allow female artists the chance to take risks with their music; to come into their own stylistically. With Jorja Smith, we’re bearing witness to a female artist who is not only experiencing the very concepts of her music in real time but also one who the industry is allowing to be her true self.
With that, one of 2018’s potential breakout candidates is channeling one of the most confusing yet most beautiful parts of life. If you have ever once been young and in love, you can relate.