I was seven or eight listens into Be Right Back when I went searching to order the record. Alongside the purchasing information over on our friends at Record Culture’s website was a bit of blurb about this latest release from Jorja Smith. In it, in her own words, Smith claims ‘It’s called be right back because it’s just something I want my fans to have right now, this isn’t an album and these songs wouldn’t have made it. If I needed to make these songs, then someone needs to hear them too.’ I was a bit flummoxed by this description. I’d been listening to Be Right Back with the understanding that it was a new album; the follow-up to Mercury nominated Lost & Found, and had been enjoying it as such. In fact, I had been so taken aback by how much I was enjoying this record, how much it seemed to be moving her sound forward for me, that I found that little description kind of annoying.
Of course, it is totally up to an artist to define their work however they wish. But it felt a little like Smith was putting out Be Right Back, and then immediately washing her hands of it. Saying that it wasn’t representative of what she wanted her music to be. So what message was that giving to someone like me? Someone who finds so much more to connect with in this collection of songs than I did with the much-lauded debut?
That’s not to say I didn’t like Lost & Found. I did. I liked it in the way that you hear an album, admire its artistry, pick out a couple of highlights and place them on playlists, and get excited for what that artist in going to do in the future. But I didn’t like it enough to reach out and buy it on the spot. Be Right Back, on the other hand, hit me in the gut from listen one. Opening song ‘Addicted’ was an instant favourite – the soaring instrumentation and the beautifully measured vocal making me immediately feel that Smith had found her voice in the years between releases. This felt more assured than anything on LP1. ‘Bussdown’, featuring Shaybo, is another song that exudes confidence and belief. It’s the closest we come to a party song on this project, but the thing that stands out is the slick ease with which Smith delivers her vocals.
And then a song like ‘Home’ is perhaps the strongest demonstration of what makes Be Right Back speak to me more than Lost & Found did. This is a simple sounding song that wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the confidence of its performer, but it is also a song that feels more honest and true than anything she has sung before. It’s sad and beautiful and beautifully sad. ‘Burn’ is equally heartbreaking – a story of someone who won’t stop trying but keeps burning out, performed with a mellow and gorgeous tone over a simple but effective bassline.
Those were the most immediate songs, but over time the likes of ‘Gone’ and ‘Digging’ grew on me, too. And in ‘Time’, among the closest echoes of Amy Winehouse in her oeuvre so far, Smith shows us the true range of her ridiculously amazing voice. She hits so many octaves in a song that’s less than two minutes long, but without ever feeling like she’s warbling and performing unnecessary acrobatics. The only song I didn’t fall in love with was ‘Weekend’ – but that’s largely because I didn’t totally gel with the lyrical choices on this one.
Overall, though, I walk away from Be Right Back thinking that Jorja Smith is not only the exciting artist of Lost & Found, but also an artist that speaks to me on a personal level. The main thing that marks this out as such an impressive project is the personality she puts into it, the sense that while Lost & Found was someone finding their feet and their place in the market, Be Right Back is an artist writing songs with real personal meaning and huge relatability. She might not be counting it as an album, but whenever I will listen to it I will be thinking of it in that way. And if she tries to get me to keep it off my Albums of the Year list at the end of 2021, then we might have to have words. The main positive I will take from the somewhat dismissive tone of the press release is that it could mean there is more Jorja Smith around the corner – if these songs really aren’t up to scratch for the next LP proper, then we are in for a massive treat.