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Music Review: Allow Jorja Smith to reintroduce herself on her sophomore release, ‘Falling or Flying’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Breaks are privileges awarded veteran acts, most often an effect of long-lasting relevancy. The opposite is also true: New acts are rarely given permission to take a beat, or risk slipping into obscurity. The horrible irony is that deadlines have never been muses for great art. The alternative is, of course, to say screw it all and work on your own timeline, likely as an independent artist.

That’s something Jorja Smith knows well.

Five years ago, the British musician released her debut LP, “Lost & Found,” defining an era of R&B-pop-trip-hop. Or simply British soul, depending on who you ask — or which country you ask it in. Now she’s released “Falling or Flying,” an eclectic sophomore release built from the pieces of her past and present.

For it, Smith relocated to her hometown of Walsall, in the West Midlands of the U.K., from London working largely with the local production duo DameDame(asterisk). The grounding effects are immediate. These 16 tracks meander, but they never feel lost. Her revered ballads have a home here, like on “Broken is the man” and the slow burn “What if my heart beats faster?” (The latter will surely reprise early Amy Winehouse comparisons for Smith’s rich, brassy tone. There are worse things to be compared to.)

In 2021, Smith dropped a short EP, “Be Right Back,” to keep the loyalists satiated. At the time, she described it as a “waiting room” for this record that would inevitably follow. It certainly served that purpose.

On “Falling or Flying,” surprises abound, from the Bombay Bicycle Club and the Kooks-inspired English-indie track “Go Go Go” to the glossy, soulful title track “Falling or Flying.” Then there are the pop-punk riffs filtered through SZA, like on “Too many times,” with echoes on “Backwards,” before the string orchestral coda.

Collaborations are few and pointed: British rapper J Hus on “Feelings” and Jamaican reggae singer Lila Iké on “Greatest Gift,” as well as a choir. Here, as before, as in every Jorja Smith record, even stripped-down production soars, like an R&B Radiohead, but it is her voice that enraptures.

Five years is a long time between a debut and sophomore release. “I like this world that I’ve just come into. And I’m still figuring things out. Always figuring things out,” Smith said of releasing new music in the current era. “This is the first time I’m putting stuff out there that I can connect with right now.” The outcome is transcendent.

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