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Jorja Smith review - smoky new voice in UK soul

Jorja Smith performing in July 2017.
‘As the final notes fade, the room is held transfixed and she asks: ‘Why are you all so quiet?’’ Jorja Smith. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

‘You have to dance with me!” grins Jorja Smith, half pleading, with the only flicker of shyness she has shown all evening. When the bass kicks in, Edinburgh’s unruly, adoring audience need no persuasion.

It’s the first night of Smith’s sellout UK tour, two years after she shared her first track on SoundCloud. Since then, the 20-year-old from Walsall has gained heady accolades and celebrity supporters with one EP and a handful of singles. That first song, Blue Lights, written for a school project on post-colonialism in UK grime, sampled Dizzee Rascal’s Sirens and showed a spellbinding talent for sleek, inventive soul. A month later, Drake played it on his Ovo Sound Radio and became one of her loudest champions. Shortlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2017 award, winner of the Brits critics’ choice award in December, and due to feature on Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther, Smith’s ascension to pop stardom has been secured by her strong sense of self.

The stage is dressed like a living room, lit in warm pinks by draped lampshades, Smith conjuring intimacy. Tonight’s fans are word-perfect to tracks released on YouTube in Smith’s homemade videos, and respond so noisily that she occasionally holds a finger to her lips to quieten the applause.

Still, they can’t drown out Smith’s staggering voice. Smoky, honeyed and so powerful it could hold its own against a Super Bowl-sized brass band, she moves through pop, funk, garage and soul with ease. On Don’t Watch Me Cry, she hits eye-watering highs with serenity, and as the final notes fade the room is held transfixed, the spell only broken when she cackles, beaming: “Why are you all so quiet?”

She breathlessly promises a debut album, dotting new songs through the set. Some lack the inventive sparkle with which she made her name, but a mesmerising cover of Frank Ocean’s heartbreaking Lost and a thunderous rendition of Let Me Down, her latest single with Stormzy, show a sensibility for stadium-filling balladry. Closing track On My Mind, a kooky, throwback UK garage banger with producer Preditah, is received like an old classic and she’s visibly delighted. Smith’s peer Raye told the Guardian about being asked to tone down her “SoundCloud R&B” to further a mainstream career; hopefully Smith’s mainstream ascent won’t come at the expense of her knack for trend-setting, personal pop.

This article titled "Jorja Smith review - smoky new voice in UK soul" was written by Katie Hawthorne, for The Guardian on Wednesday 7 February 2018 02.24pm

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