Hip-Hop

Jorja Smith, Co-Signed by Drake & Kendrick: 'My Songs Are Classics'

Jorja Smith
Jacqueline Harriet

Jorja Smith photographed on May 10, 2018 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia.

Jorja Smith is thinking about changing her only tattoo, on the middle finger of her left hand, from a number 11 to the astrological sign for Gemini. “Kendrick [Lamar] is also a Gemini,” she says. “We clicked.”

Lamar confirms as much when he tells Billboard that “Jorja is a constant reminder that true artistry, writing and creativity will forever be alive and well. She is the future and present.” Right now, the soft-spoken Smith is sipping green tea at a quaint coffee shop in Philadelphia, where she’s set to perform the next night on the latest stop of her sold-out 17-date North American tour. Matching sun signs aside, the number 11 has been significant to the 20-year-old Walsall, England, native since she recorded her first song at that age. She even titled her debut EP, independently released in November 2016, Project 11. Soon after, Drake slid into her direct messages to enlist her to sing on two More Life tracks; one of them, “Get It Together,” peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning Smith her first entry on the chart. Since then, she has picked up features on the Insecure and Dear White People soundtracks and contributed “I Am” to 2018’s Black Panther: The Album, overseen by Lamar. The song has become her most-streamed track, with 32.2 million audio and video streams, according to Nielsen Music.

On June 8, she will release her debut full-length, Lost & Found -- independently. “People think I’m signed because of how successful I’ve been so far,” says Smith, who’s wearing leggings and a black hoodie with her name across the front and “Crew” on the back. “But I’m not successful yet,” she’s quick to add. “I’ve got far to go. There’s always more to be done.”

Bryan Chong
Smith onstage with Drake in Toronto in 2017.

On the soulful Lost & Found, Smith croons over hazy instrumentals that call to mind Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut, Frank. Smith loves Winehouse and that album in particular, but says she hates to hear “anyone being compared to her.” She also bridles at getting lumped in with the new wave of R&B -- think Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis. (Though she did collaborate with Uchis on her 2018 song “Tyrant.”) “People say I’m pop, soul, neo-soul, new R&B, future R&B -- fuck knows. I just make my music. It’s not too complicated. I say what I’m feeling, and a lot of people feel the same way. My songs,” she adds, “are classics.”

Growing up, Smith would have pretend songwriting sessions with her father, a neo-soul artist who performed in a band called 2nd Naicha, but she didn't want to sing in public. Her mother, who makes jewelry, would encourage her to perform at craft fairs, and her “auntie,” who ran a cake shop, would have her serenade customers a cappella. The practice paid off. Now, she says, “I like my album and everything -- but I’m better live.”

Still, as recently as three years ago, Smith was nowhere near a stage. She was behind the counter working as a barista at Starbucks in Central London, waking up at 5 a.m. to commute across the Waterloo Bridge. “I’d listen to [FKA] TwigsLP1 all the time -- that was the soundtrack of my move to London. I’d get off [the bus] and have two minutes to stand on the bridge, look at Big Ben, then get on another bus to go to work. It was lovely, because it was so still. I miss those times, just thinking about it now.” In between tour dates with Bruno Mars last fall and her own U.S. tour this year, Smith, who still lives in London, has found far fewer such pockets of time, and much of them she has spent with her boyfriend, 25-year-old Joel Compass, a singer, writer and producer whom she has been dating since last September. “A lot of people are like, ‘Maybe you shouldn't have a boyfriend at this [crucial] time,’” she says, “but I’m like, ‘I think I’m good. I’m writing good songs.’”

Jacqueline Harriet
Jorja Smith photographed on May 10, 2018 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia.

Together, the two wrote “The One,” a passionate Lost & Found ballad about meeting the right person at the wrong time, which Smith relates to as she tries to balance her work and personal lives. “I love anything about love. I think it’s because I’m in love,” she says, smiling brightly. The night before they laid down the song, Smith and Compass decided not to date since she was about to tour the United States, though they later gave in. “It was a sad session, because I was writing about not wanting to be with him but really liking him. It’s such an honest song -- we were talking to each other through the session. When we played it back, I swear a tear came down my face.”

And while Smith can see that her rise appears smooth and swift, she’s not going easy on herself. “I don’t like setting goals,” she admits. “I don’t like to be disappointed.” In business decisions, she trusts her instincts. But she’s putting a little more work, she says, in getting to know herself. “I’ll get there, or maybe I won’t,” says Smith. “I’m growing up, and I put it in my music. I’ve got a good platform -- I don’t want to mess up.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.