Deeper Read: Why 25 Year Old North London Rapper Little Simz Is Our Album of the Week Artist
By Triple R volunteer writer Katherine Smyrk
In 2015 Kendrick Lamar went on BBC Radio and, when asked about upcoming UK rappers, said: ‘There’s a young lady out here that’s pretty dope by the name of Little Simz. She might be the illest doing it right now.’
A pretty big pump up for a 25 year old north London rapper – full name Simbi Ajikawo – who was yet to release an album. She’d put out numerous mixtapes and, not long after, released her awaited debut, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. In 2016 she followed up with concept album Stillness in Wonderland (based on Alice in Wonderland), released on her independent label AGE: 101 Music.
But it’s now, with her third album GREY Area (Triple R’s Album of the Week), that things seem to be coming together for Simz.
Despite props from Kendrick, a world tour opening for Gorillaz and performing as a special guest for Lauryn Hill, industry and mainstream recognition of the artist has been slow – especially in the UK. She’s been nominated for a few awards, but hasn’t won any. As a 2016 article from Noisey said: ‘The silence surrounding Little Simz name has become deafening.’
Maybe GREY Area is the album that will finally do it. A review from NME declared Simz had made ‘the greatest rap record of the year so far, and it’s hard to imagine anyone outdoing it’.
For an album that’s essentially about having a quarter-life crisis, it starts with strength like a punch in the guts. On opener ‘Offence’, she spits, ‘I’m Picasso with the pen,’ and, ‘I'm Jay-Z on a bad day / Shakespeare on my worst days’. On ‘Venom’, she ferociously takes on anyone who doubts her because she’s a woman – ‘Never giving credit where it’s due coz you don’t like pussy in power.’
But the mood shifts dramatically throughout the album, suckering you with vulnerability, anger, sadness. It careens through genres, too. Heavy beats and her razor-sharp lyrics variously combine with funk, soul, dreamy synth and the stylings of guest artists like Little Dragon and Cleo Sol. But it somehow all makes sense. It’s music that sounds like being 25.
‘Growing pains, that was the inspiration behind it,’ Simz told Billboard. ‘Just coming into myself a lot more and being a young woman in my mid-20s and like still learning about myself. I think it’s something that’s a universal topic and I think we all go through it.’
Even on badass track ‘Boss’, where she proclaims ‘I’m a boss in a fucking dress’, she almost pleads, ‘Stop fucking with my heart’. Each song is real and raw – from ‘Wounds’, about the murder of her friend Harry Uzoka, to ‘Therapy’, which hits close to home for anyone who’s ever experienced doubt: ‘Sometimes we do not see the fuckery until we’re out of it / Some people read The Alchemist and still never amount to shit.’ Then there’s ‘Flowers’, with guest Michael Kiwanuka, a track that can only be described as tender.
The whole album is produced by her childhood friend Inflo, who she started rapping with when she was nine. They started the process in LA where, to begin with, they ‘just talked for days on end’. They finished it up back home in London.
‘I’d been travelling so much and it was just too much. It was like, “I can’t bear missing people and working myself tirelessly.” I could see it taking its toll,’ she told Noisey. ‘So I just needed to make an album where I’m pouring out my heart and soul, but I’m also eating properly. Taking care of things that I need to pay close attention to.’
Simz has admitted that writing the album was her way of processing everything she’d been going through – her own version of therapy.
‘If I were to go to therapy, this is what I’d be saying,’ she told The Guardian.
It’s actually opener ‘Offence’ that sums up the album best. It’s defiant and bold, but also raw, from the heart: ‘I say it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend.’
Katherine Smyrk is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the Deputy Editor of The Big Issue. When she's not reading or writing she is usually eating cheese, playing footy or dancing to Beyoncé.