Jorja Smith’s lush vocals are often compared to the voice of one of her own music idols, Amy Winehouse. Velvety and coy, her voice glides across ballads in the same manner as Winehouse, minus the jaded wistfulness that dominates much of her hero’s work. Regardless of these similarities, Smith doesn’t get too wrapped up in emulating past artists. Her main focus in making music, she explained in an i-D interview, is to “be honest and let go.”
Smith has been singing and writing music since she was in high school, but it wasn’t until the beginning of last year that she released her first single “Blue Lights.” Becoming a regular rotation in London’s local radio stations, the song hurled Smith into the British music scene, making her so popular she was able to quit her day job at Starbucks to fully commit to songwriting. Since she dropped “Blue Lights,” the independent artist has caught the attention of several powerhouses in the music industry, including Drake, who featured her on his recent album More Life, and BBC Music, which listed her as a talent to look out for on its Sound of 2017 rankings.
A majority of Smith’s music centers around stories of heartbreak and lost love, but the artist insists her songs are not all autobiographical. “It’s funny because I’ve never been heartbroken,” Smith told BBC in an interview. “I’ve got a boyfriend now, but he’s my first boyfriend. So I write from little things that have happened, and I like getting into people’s shoes and getting into a character and making a whole story.” Smith exercises this strategy in her single “A Prince,” a stirring track inspired by her friends’ numerous romantic disappointments. Likewise, her song “Blue Lights,” which samples Dizzee Rascal’s “Sirens,” is based on two friends who are constantly wary of the police, despite their crime-free lives. With this diversity of experience included in her songs, Smith allows listeners to interpret her own life and worldview, distilling her observations into articulate soul music.
At 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 31, at Great American Music Hall. $18 – $20; slimpresents.com
The story of Drake Bell’s life can accurately be summed up in the opening lines of his breakout song “Found a Way”: “I never thought that’d it be so simple but / I found a way, I found a way.” Indeed, for virtually his entire life, Drake Bell has been finding his way into pop-rock — ever since he starred in the Nickelodeon sitcom Drake & Josh, which used “Found a Way” as its theme song. Costarring with his best friend at the time, Josh Peck, Bell played a guitar-obsessed teenager in a band, and his performances in the show led to musical releases outside the show, the most recent of which is his 2017 EP Honest.
“This whole EP is a completely new sound,” Bell told People magazine. “I had so much fun making this. I’m just anxious to know what people think.” In Honest, Bell shifts away from his typical modern-rockabilly sound, and leans toward shimmery pop songs with lighter synth beats. He incorporates steamy lyrics like, “Spread your love like a wildfire / When I breathe you in I go up in smoke,” reminding listeners that he has matured since his days as a goofy kids’ show actor.
Hosted by UC Berkeley’s Colleges Against Cancer organization, Bell’s performance this Sunday raises money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.
With Ghost Dragon and Michael Lanza at 7 p.m., Sunday, Sep. 3, at Pauley Ballroom. $15 – $99; berkeley.yapsody.com
Ja Rule began his hip-hop career as a member of Queens underground rap group Cash Money Click in the mid-’90s. During this time, he wrote and performed with other New York artists scrambling to get their careers started, such as DMX and Jay-Z. Nearly two decades later, Ja Rule is no longer the green newcomer venturing into stardom for the first time, but a seasoned hip-hop icon whose melodic hits filled early-21st-century radio with their hybridized R&B and rap.
Ja Rule’s eighth album is due for release sometime this year, and he has stated that this record will be his last. Titled Coup de Grâce, it will also be Ja Rule’s first album since his two-year imprisonment for possession of a weapon and failure to file taxes. The expression “coup de grâce” is a French term that refers to a deadly “blow of mercy” given to a wounded animal, but many anticipate that Ja Rule’s Coup de Grâce will catalog the rapper’s rebirth, rather than his metaphorical death. Ja Rule used the time in jail as an opportunity to renew himself, saying to Complex that prison was “a chance to be one with yourself, look at yourself from the outside looking in, and understand the mistakes you’ve made and people you’ve hurt and really reflect on how you’re gonna go forward and make it better.”
While incarcerated, Ja Rule earned his GED, and, after being let out of jail, converted to Christianity. Given his commitment to being the best version of himself, it is likely that Coup de Grâce will hardly be the stifled death that its name implies.
Once, in a stand-up bit, comedian Aziz Ansari described the “very strange formula” of Ja Rule’s music. Each song would “have a woman with a very beautiful voice like Jennifer Lopez or Ashanti, and they would sing the hook. Then Ja would come in and sound like someone that was getting stabbed in the stomach through their ulcer.” Though Ansari exaggerates the gravelly nature of Ja Rule’s voice, his joke highlights the artist’s uncommonly rough vocals and choppy flow. In contrast to his abrasive rap delivery, Ja Rule’s most popular songs are sensual R&B tracks about falling in love for the first time. In “Put it On Me,” Ja Rule begs the question, “Where would I be without my baby / The thought alone might break me.” He’s also featured on one of the most romantic songs of The Hamilton Mixtape, “Helpless,” where he raps as Alexander Hamilton proposing marriage to his future wife. Despite his hardened exterior, Ja Rule is a lover, not a fighter.
At 10 p.m., Sunday, Sep. 3, at Temple Nightclub. $10 – $12; templenightclub.templesf.com