Our Take: You Don’t Know Jorja Smith Until You Know ‘Project 11’

Our Rating

For two years now, international eyes have progressively focused on Jorja Smith. With the help of heavyweights like Kali Uchis and (mostly) Drake, an inestimable sum of attention has cemented onto the British R&B singer/songwriter since this spring – although 2016’s “Blue Lights” had long placed her on underground radars, of which routinely exercised their clairvoyance by dubbing her as a woman to watch.

Today, being in Smith’s shoes would surely terrify the average person her age. At a wiser, yet still clueless 20 years old, sparring with adult reality is hard enough in private – let’s not talk about the notion of doing so with millions of curious spectators deconstructing one’s present life, expandingly surreal and star-studded, in addition to the documented coming-of-age stories originating from an earlier period of frankly embarrassing naivete.

Some teenagers kept blogs or journals to record this type of moody nostalgia, unremarkable artifacts buried under the weight of the real world. Smith, on the contrary, wrote songs about her youth experience; she sings on love, hate and living in a boy’s world, always telling an identifiable story by questioning such matters in conjunction. Her teenaged musings are not forgettable, but integral to her grown-up reality. And those written memories are just one of the pillars of Smith’s success – a soul-melting voice, radiant face and keen sense of self-awareness are the others.

Slowing down isn’t anywhere on the young woman’s career itinerary, and things are moving faster musically, too. Out late August, “On My Mind” is Smith’s latest offering, a garage-infused soul-pop collaboration with grime producer Preditah; the cut is equally expressive in lyrics as the rest of her material, but its speed is something new for the singer whose formula has always been heart-melting soul, never rushed and rocking at midtempo. This departure is good for Smith – it exemplifies her mainstream potential, along with an ability to adjust to new sonic atmospheres. At the same time, “On My Mind” is a fresh and unfamiliar track. It’s music that makes an artist’s longtime listeners crave a bit of the old, not because the new isn’t any good, but because the old is a different kind of good.

Watch: “On My Mind” – Jorja Smith

In Smith’s case, her 2016 freshman EP Project 11 personifies an aged and acquainted charm that will probably, at least for the next few years, remain exclusive to its native record. Stunning is one word that can succinctly describe the newcomer’s debut performance, but the phrase “new classic” is more adequate. Think back to Songs in A Minor Key, Alicia Keys’ first LP that left her with five Grammys; more specifically, remember the album’s lead single, “Fallin’,” today christened as an apt reference point for post-millennium neo soul.

Given a decade or so, Project 11 will have a similar function for the future of singer/songwriter R&B. Although no slew of big-ticket nominations was tacked onto the indie EP, it still establishes a blossoming and confident musicianship like Keys’. But this should come as no complete surprise, considering that both women are genuine songwriters as much as they are talented vocalists – the fact that Songs in A Minor Key and Project 11 were both recorded during Keys and Smith’s late adolescent days is, perhaps, a chilling parallel of young spiritualities.

In this way, Smith’s 18-minute undertaking is proof that a teen girl’s mind is nothing ignorable or foolish, particularly when paired with a clever vision. Project 11 is not just a handful of stories crafted into tracks, but instead a multidimensional exploration of the aching human heart via soul in its most honest forms: music and poetry. In structure and purpose, the two crafts are innately connected, and yet, prose sparingly appears in catalogs like Smith’s. Granted, for a newcomer, dedicating even a petite fifth of a first project to spoken verse can be interpreted as over-ambition – nevertheless, softly squeezed in the middle of Smith’s record is London writer Thea Gajic’s poetry, titled “Carry Me Home (Interlude).”

The song is a surprise slowdown from its precursor, “So Lonely,” which already trickled with drips of beautiful melancholy, and few folks appreciate a complete step on the break; however, Gajic’s performance is more of a necessary speed bump than pothole. She poses an opportunity for her audience to think about Project 11 midway – she’s giving one’s ears a chance to consume what’s already been presented. And in both sound and meaning, it only takes a second to feel enveloped in “Carry Me Home (Interlude).” Gajic’s voice is as honeyed as Smith’s singing, and Smith’s words (I don’t wanna follow you around until you find the truth. But I’d rather not kiss every stranger until I find you… People overthink things. Women wreak havoc. Men implode.) are arresting and direct.

Though the prose is not vocalized by Smith, it radiates through all of Project 11, on which the remainder of her stories feel strange, not happy. But this discomfort is where her lyricism glows most. In some moments, the unease morphs into pre-visited themes – on “Imperfect Circle,” an anti-racist frustration, initially expressed on “Blue Lights” a year earlier, boils again. At other times, recognizable ideas are ushered by new angles. Illustrating a bridge between love (a concept) and seclusion (an emotional position) is “So Lonely,” and as she sings “It’s good for you to be alone, no/ But you can’t learn it all on your own, no,” it’s hard to decide what’s more affecting – the truth that the 20-year-old suggests, or the way her singing nearly grows into a vulnerable cry. When Smith seems to be fighting tears, the track’s rawness appears most beautifully. Even the backing piano is an ornamental touch; her voice and stories admire each other and meet in sheer perfection, showing strength as a duo that doesn’t need much help.

“So Lonely” is also a reintroduction to Smith’s broken heart, originally called to attention on opener “Something In The Way”: “When I left I thought I would be stronger/ But in fact, it took away my energy,” she recalls, her Rihanna-esque delivery floating over bluesy guitar and percussion. The track is warm and transportive – it feels like neighborhood soul, the kind that leaks from behind a tiny café’s swinging screen door during an open mic. And at its chorus, that image shimmers with a relaxed loudness and texture; those sounds and words are unique to “Something In The Way,” in the sense that they don’t emotionally align with the aching music that succeeds them.

Something in the way, why am I crying for you, babe? / Can’t stand the rain, time to move on anyway,” Smith decides at the start of Project 11. There’s a tang to her tone, as though she’s momentarily withdrawing from romantic love. But her self-assurance – however deluded it may really be – is, again, nowhere to be found elsewhere on the EP. For instance, “Carry Me Home” cradles her last words on love, a series of thoughts harmonized with UK singer Maverick Sabre (Carry me home/ Bear my weight on your shoulders/ And don’t let go). In isolation, the track makes sense, but as a chapter of a book, Smith’s words are mysteriously disjointed, soaring across multiple narratives. The misery of “So Lonely” surely doesn’t coincide with the quasi-spunk of “Something In The Way” – the soft desire in both “Carry Me Home” recitals doesn’t exactly fit in the puzzle either.

Listen: “Carry Me Home” – Jorja Smith

So the questions arise: How many lives can one 20-year-old girl experience? How can she fluently speak to so many people, all of whom have vastly different experiences? For the former inquiry, the practical answer is just one, of course (she’s a blessing to our music libraries, but equally mortal as the rest of us). However, for the latter, there’s a stimulating explanation: Smith is an outstanding liar, and that’s no slander.

“I try to write as real as possible, even though I make things up,” she told BBC News earlier this year as a nominee for their Sound of 2017. “They’re based on a truth that I believe… I write from little things that have happened and I like getting into people’s shoes and getting into a character and making a whole story.”

And for her past two, increasingly public years, Smith’s modus operandi has become escaping into oxymoronic identities: an honest liar, and a young woman with not only typical, resonant autobiographical tales, but nine magical lives. Her debut represents not only those personalities, but preserves the gifted soul of an adolescent Jorja Smith – in a few years’ time, everyone will hurry to latch onto the young woman’s soft, unhurried beginnings presented as Project 11.

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The Breakdown

Sydney is a staff writer at Atwood Magazine. She studies journalism in San Diego, California, and mostly reports on arts and culture. Talk to her on Twitter (@syderature) or Instagram (@syd.oh).