Arts

Jorja Smith Puts a Beat Behind Mixed Emotions on ‘Falling or Flying’

There’s always a forlorn edge to Jorja Smith’s voice, even when things are going well. “A love like this is nothing I have known before,” she sings on “Make Sense,” a track from her new album, “Falling or Flying.” Even as she rejoices, “A home in you I’ve found,” the chords circle around a minor key and she sounds cautious, almost disbelieving.

Smith, 25, has been delivering pensive British R&B since she emerged with “Blue Lights” in 2016, singing about racism and police violence. She has released a steady string of her own tracks and collaborated prolifically and internationally: with Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Burna Boy, Stormzy, Kali Uchis and Ibeyi, among many others.

From the beginning, and more than ever on “Falling or Flying,” her second full-length studio album, Smith has kept her sound strictly focused. No matter how many layers are in the final mixes — and there can be plenty tucked in — the songs present themselves as minimal, with stripped-down riffs behind aching vocals. In other words, rhythms and blues.

On first impression, Smith might seem diffident. Her tone is natural and understated, and as her catalog has grown, she has raised her voice less and less. Smith uses nuance instead of volume. With a voice that often sounds like it’s on the verge of tears, she brings flickers of vibrato, jazzy curlicues, grainy inflections and subtle pauses and accelerations to her phrasing. It’s not modesty at all — it’s precision, and it has been ever more sharply honed.

Although Smith established herself as a ballad singer with songs like “Addicted” from her 2021 EP, “Be Right Back,” she has always been canny about rhythm. With “Falling or Flying,” she raises the tension in her songs by pushing the beat upfront, sometimes shifting it into double time. Smith isn’t joining the disco and house revival. On the contrary: She and her producers — especially Damedame, the partnership of Edith Nelson and Barbara Boko-Hyouyhat — come up with un-nostalgic beats. And while the tracks can be sleek, they strive to make Smith sound exposed, not glossy.

Throughout the album, the insistent physicality of rhythm hints at the jitters that someone hides while putting on a brave face. “Try Me” opens the album with a Bo Diddley beat laced at first with finger-cymbal pings and later with a pistol-cocking sound, as Smith confronts naysayers and past wounds. “I don’t have to tell you what I’ve changed,” she sings.

The songs on “Falling or Flying” are about primal needs: for love, for sex, for comfort, for understanding, for independence. As the rhythms push forward, Smith’s voice ponders and hesitates, working through doubts and then taking chances, physical and emotional.

In “Little Things,” a hopping bass line and brisk Latin percussion drive a bold come-on — “Won’t you come with me and spend the night?” — while dissonant, syncopated piano chords hint at suppressed misgivings. The title song, “Falling or Flying,” is even more ambivalent about a new infatuation; with percussion and rhythm guitar ricocheting left and right, Smith urges, “Show me you want me.” Then she wonders, “Who else could get me to fall from these heights?”

Most of the album is filled with goodbyes, not connections. “Go Go Go,” with a syncopated guitar backbeat and slamming drums harking back to the Police, summarily jettisons a lover who wouldn’t keep things to himself. In “Broken Is the Man,” Smith looks back on a relationship she now realizes was toxic: “Can you believe I put myself through that all/Just to realize you mean nothing to me,” she sings, over a slow, thudding beat; she won’t let it drag her down.

But Smith refuses to simplify partners into heroes and villains; she knows it’s never that clear. The final stretch of the album moves back toward her old ballad mode — guitars, piano, string arrangements — as she sings about reluctantly, guiltily but unequivocally pulling away. “What if My Heart Beats Faster?,” the finale, contemplates the way even the closest partners ultimately can’t know each other. “Think that I’ve always been this way/Funny how life will change but they never figure it out.” It feels like an internal conversation that somehow turned into song. And the drums hit like a heartbeat.

Jorja Smith
“Falling or Flying”
(FAMM)

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