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Tracing The Influences Behind Jorja Smith's Debut

How The 21-Year-Old Singer Adds To The Legacy Of Vulnerable Women In R&B

On June 20, 2018

Jorja Smith might be known so far as a feature artist, after collaborations with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Kali Uchis, among others. But the range of her debut album, Lost & Found, proves she is so much more. At times rasping and plaintive, then soft and rapturous, Smith’s first full-length has mood shifts and an ambivalence toward genre that only someone with a voice as singular as hers could balance.

Despite being unique, captivating and definitely Smith’s own, this record feels familiar in that it echoes the honesty and intimacy of women in R&B who came before her, and resonates with the accessibility of her contemporaries. R&B has always been an avenue for emotional expression, with a history of powerful women within the genre speaking out about sex, relationships and, radically, themselves.

Some influences on Lost & Found are explicit — Smith is an Amy Winehouse fan — while others are subtle, intangible consequences of the interconnected musical world we live in. Being a woman, specifically a woman of color, in the world of R&B means the comparisons to artists like SZA and Rihanna are inevitable. Beyond just being compared to these artists, Smith’s music builds on the foundations of their work. The emotional honesty and gutting vulnerability of Lost & Found has precedent in Frank and Back to Black, Ctrl and ANTI.

The compelling tie-ins between these four women — Smith, Winehouse, SZA and Rihanna — do not undermine their individuality. One of the qualities they share is the paradox of being personal and relatable at the same time. The particularity of their pain is what gets fans’ attention, their soulful singing like siren’s songs leading to devastation.

All four of them released the albums above in their 20s (“God bless these 20-somethings”), which makes the emotional depth and maturity of them even more impressive. Over the course of Lost & Found there are startling shifts in maturity, with some tracks reminding listeners Smith isn’t far from her teens (“Teenage Fantasy”), while others display haunting wisdom (“The One”) and don't shy away from political commentary (“Lifeboats (Freestyle)” and “Blue Lights”).

One thing that does not vary across the album is Smith’s smooth, almost-too-easy delivery and ability to captivate listeners. Here, we trace the influences behind her slow-jam filled debut.

That U.K. R&B Legacy

Smith has talked about the influence Amy Winehouse had on her — more than once. And as a young woman and R&B artist from the U.K., it is no surprise that Smith has been impacted by Winehouse. Beyond the British-accented stretched vowels and shared genre, there’s a certain Winehouse-like flare to some of Smith’s runs and the way she leans into notes. But where Winehouse emoted through grit and pushing her voice through the pain, Smith has found a way to create a similar atmosphere with her distinctly effortless sound.

The title track or “Where Did I Go?” might be Smith at her grittiest on this album, and these songs are where she approaches the rasp of Winehouse. The slight edge to her voice and funk undertones on “Where Did I Go?” call back to Back to Black tracks like “Tears Dry On Their Own.” On “Goodbyes,” in the moments where Smith’s voice builds with just a guitar between her voice and the world, it’s clear that she grew up listening to Frank tracks like “I Heard Love Was Blind.”

Smith’s impeccable restraint makes the releases in Lost & Found just as powerful as Winehouse’s rawness. She is poised to show us what the future of U.K. R&B looks like, building on Winehouse’s legacy.

Defiance And Devastation In The Tradition Of ANTI

The Rihanna of ANTI is equal parts defiant and devastated; she simultaneously claims her sexuality and power in some relationships, while detailing powerlessness within others. Much of Lost & Found has a similar energy: Smith is independent and strong, but at several points in the album she is incredibly alone. “On Your Own” showcases this balance, with Smith asserting, “This time I’m gone / Even better now I’ve left you,” with all the confidence of Rihanna and SZA’s “Consideration.” Yet, with the chorus repeating “On your own tonight / You’re all alone tonight,” it’s impossible to ignore that, as accusing as they sound, these lines also describe Smith and hint at her own loneliness.

“On Your Own” sounds like it could be a companion to “Close To You,” ANTI’s album closer. “Close To You” is a track that dwells on a lack of connection, full of the pain inevitable in wanting closeness with someone who refuses to let you in. “On Your Own” contains all the same lack of connection and loneliness, just with the twist of the relationship being officially over. Lost & Found, in the aftermath of ANTI, is another iteration of what it means to be simultaneously assertive, confident, soft and feminine — without contradiction.

Self-Worth In A Post-Ctrl World

Imperfection has never been so beautiful as it is in SZA’s Ctrl. Flaws and weakness are weaponized, made anthemic. It set the precedent for Lost & Found and beyond, creating a modern context in which vulnerability is celebrated.

Smith’s rapping and singing at faster tempos has a SZA-like lilt, and the disillusionment found in “Teenage Dream” is also present throughout Ctrl, especially in tracks like “Broken Clocks.” There’s a shared independence and hesitancy to be open, too, like in “Broken Clocks” when SZA sings, “I don't wanna, don't need nobody,” a sentiment Smith echoes nearly exactly in the chorus of “The One” (“I don't want to need no one”). When Smith sings “I've said what I can / But do you hear it? Do I know who I am?” in the bridge of “Tomorrow,” it sums up a central question in Ctrl: How do we know ourselves and our worth?

There may be fewer direct parallels between SZA and Smith, but the queen of TDE looms large enough in current R&B and neo-soul music that it’s impossible not to hear her influence in Lost & Found. Ctrl is the new archetype of emotional honesty, yet Smith holds her own and escapes its shadow.

Profile Picture of Theda Berry
Theda Berry

Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.

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