Jorja Smith – ‘Be Right Back’ review: a sophisticated, tender interlude

The British artist tides us over between her first and second album with a set of vignettes that reaffirm her emotional power.

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Jorja Smith steers her own ship, and she’s in cool, calm command. Other artists might’ve just released ‘Be Right Back’ – a set of eight polished songs – as their second album, with some padding. But not Smith, who always shows her hand slowly and assertively. “I write what I want to write,” the independent British artist once said.

‘Be Right Back’ isn’t a dramatic departure from Smith’s acclaimed 2018 debut album ‘Lost & Found’, a remarkably elegant record from such a young and ambitious musician. Her restrained, assured rise to fame proves the virtue of doing things in your own time. She’s won two BRIT awards, been nominated for a Grammy and a Mercury, and collaborated with the industry’s upper echelons, from Stormzy, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake, to Burna Boy on 2019’s ‘Be Honest’. No missteps, no overly weak material. ‘Blue Lights’, her 2016 debut single addressing police brutality and racism, remains ever relevant.

‘Blue Lights’ signalled Smith’s ability to conjure not just a mood but a whole world within a song. ‘Be Right Back’ offers more of these emotive vignettes. Her voice – which vaults from falsetto to half-withheld defiance to bluesy smoulder – continues to run the show, amid fairly minimal production: nineties trip-hop beats, R&B strums, synth, slow dancehall, studio chatter.

Either the songs glow like embers or glare like streetlights, as they deal with the ravages of emotional intimacy: unrequited love, washed-up feelings, and relationship burnout. South London rapper Shaybo appears on ‘Bussdown’ to offer some fresh perspective. Mostly, though, we’re inside Smith’s head and heart. “The hardest thing / You are not addicted to me,” concedes lead single ‘Addicted’, not without agony. “Tell me how the world seems to get along without you / Tell me how to keep my world moving on without you / How could my world be much better off without you?” she implores on ‘Gone’, stunned by grief. These are things she “can’t say to myself but I’ll say it in the mirror” – or in a song.

Smith’s independent spirit burns brightest on penultimate track ‘Digging’. Lifted by billowing percussion, she declares, “Get out of my head / I want a piece of my mind instead”. And after demonstrating such emotional maturity and self-reliance, you can’t blame her. ‘Weekend’, the project’s last song, maintains the newly raised pace, before degrading into ribboned tape.

These refined songs tread some water, but they aren’t cutting-room-floor scraps tossed out on the breeze. Nor are they definitive enough to be the expectation-laden second album. Instead, ‘Be Right Back’ is here to remind you that Jorja Smith exists, and she’s good, and she’s sailing back this way. The waters are stirred, with some baggage offloaded for future buoyancy.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Jorja Smith - 'Be Right Back'

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