Earlier this year, Jorja Smith showed up unannounced to a Birmingham club to perform her new song “Little Things” shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowd, radiating effortless joy in her Juicy Couture tracksuit and sunglasses. The song is a career highlight for Smith, who glides breezily over its early-2000s UK funky bounce. As you watch the rowdy clip of her singing it, you almost forget she is one of the UK’s biggest homegrown pop stars. On her unhurried, self-possessed third album, Falling or Flying, she shines in the moments where she exudes this same loose-limbed confidence.

Smith’s 2018 debut Lost & Found was a collection of stylish, socially-conscious R&B and soul that showed off her silky voice, though its pristinely produced ballads could feel a little safe. She found an international audience through her work with Drake, who featured her on his 2017 mixtape More Life. But Smith, who releases all her music on her own independent label FAMM, has often shown reluctance to follow the expected path for a pop upstart, stripping down her sound further on her 2021 EP Be Right Back instead of attempting to repeat the success of her surprise garage hit with Preditah or dancefloor-heating collaboration with Burna Boy. Recently, she moved away from the music industry hub of London back to her childhood town of Walsall, living quietly in a farmhouse.

In Walsall, she’s teamed up with local production duo Edith Nelson and Barbara Boko-Hyouyhat, collectively known as DameDame*, for Falling or Flying. The result is a sumptuous, earthy album that experiments more freely with genre than Smith’s music has before. The first half of the record propels from the springy alternative R&B of “She Feels” and the Afrobeats of “Feelings” to the pop punk of “GO GO GO.” The spaciousness of the production makes it all feel considered rather than overwhelming: Guitars lick at the edges of melodies, ghostly layered vocals soar in the middle distance, and basslines shudder. Smith’s voice is assured and grounded: She reaches far less frequently for belting high notes and runs than she did on Lost & Found, instead sitting back comfortably.

Much of the record explores her ambivalent relationship to fame, though Smith keeps her cards close to her chest. “Ask me about me again,” Smith dares you at the outset, over strident production buoyed by the ring of bicycle bells and clattering percussion. Her cagey lyrics dance around the pressure of being a public figure, imploring you to read her, while refusing to be easy to read. Elsewhere, on the world-weary ballad “Too Many Times,” she contemplates the people who only see her worth now that she’s famous, plumbing the smoky depths of her lower register.

Understated moments like this one can be powerful, but more often than not, they take the wind out of the album’s sails. There are a handful of ballads that could have been taken from the Lost & Found sessions, including the sleepy “Try and Fit In,” which slips by prettily without making much of an impact. Smith is a little too comfortable when she leans back in this downtempo mode. The closing piano ballad “What If My Heart Beats Faster?” is the longest song on the record, and feels that way.

As with the bruised defiance of “Try Me,” Smith spends the majority of the album circling vulnerability like a boxer in the ring, by turns acting tough and sweet. (As J Hus puts it on his guest turn, “Badman, but sometimes I want a cuddle”). It’s in this tension that she finds magic: See the push-pull of the sultry title track, “Falling or Flying,” where she invites a lover over in the middle of the night while also reminding him that she doesn’t know how she feels about him. Over the chorus’s swell of airy handclaps and guitar riffs, Smith sounds carefree as she accepts that after all, ecstasy and panic can feel like the same thing. When she leans into these moments of abandon, it hits like a rush of air to the face.

All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Jorja Smith: Falling or Flying