Little Simz is a big deal.
“Never try me… ‘Cause I’m humble and quiet” Little Simz warns on “Backseat,” a bonus track from the wonderful Stillness in Wonderland. Never one for much pomp or circumstance, Simbi Ajikawo uses her sharp tongue and deep insight to leave a mark on listeners. As a woman in hip-hop, she deals with categorizations and assumptions on a daily basis (“What’s with you and assumptions” she also said an album ago). Pensive and composed, she knows better than most that life never happens in indefinite moments, ones which require reflection yet also make one restless. Her latest album, GREY Area, encompasses Simz’s own exploration of her psyche, career and life.
Simz calls back to her older material by means of dead bodies and low tides. She refers to a nonexistent daughter as a king on “Therapy.” Her recall is one of her finest talents as a storyteller who immortalizes characters from her past for her eloquent archive of lyrics, as on A Curious Tale’s “God Bless Mary.” Even when addressing writer’s block, she finds plenty of proper words to describe it on “Sherbet Sunset.” To find musical expression in that, along with self-doubt and general existentialism, is no small feat, but GREY Area captures these feelings and plays them out in a contemplative manner perfect for a rainy day. Whether you decide to listen while working from home or simply watching puddles form outside your window, the album provides equal amounts imagination and stimulation.
Though her lyrics reach Busta Rhymes speeds on “Venom,” Simz never fails to enunciate, a breath of fresh air among the mumble rappers and “cursive” singers of today. The lack of affectation makes her voice all the more threatening—Little Simz hides from no one. “Venom” features a single lyric, “I,” whispered with such power it stops you in your tracks while Simz speeds away on her flow. Conversely, the line “a boss in a fuckin’ dress!” set to a laid back bass and tempo knocks you over the head with sheer self-confidence. Even in her relaxed groove on “Selfish,” Simz asserts that “you can’t handle a woman of [her] caliber.” She spent much of her young life in her room recording music to grow and learn as a musician’ she’s now released three albums through a label that she started on her own when she was just 20 years old. She has every reason to boast.
GREY Area’s tracks flourish with added elements of dance-punk, rock and soul, a little guitar riff here, a bit of cymbal-assisted percussion there. The live instruments add a bit of grit (“Boss”, “Offence”) as well as feelings of warmth (the trumpet on “Flowers”). Simz’s ear for instrumentals works hand-in-hand with her lyrical dexterity. The Eastern strings of “101 FM” transports you into her memories of flat life, Mortal Kombat and the grind that led to her own 101 label.
As its title suggests, GREY Area grapples with the hardships of fame, poverty and the human condition itself. While Stillness in Wonderland dealt with celebrity in a more deranged fashion, turning towards fear, anger and delusion as means to make sense of it all, her latest replaces its psychedelic, trippy productions for a more grounded sound. Simz handles herself with more toughness than menace this time around, but aspects of the industry still keep her thinking: “I leave the country without givin’ it any thought.” When it comes to race, “Pressure” contends with the barriers that Black people face and how much of her message is not meant for a portion of her fans and audience. Simz faces her issues directly, and forces white listeners to reckon with them: “Do not try to relate” is a strong reminder for people to recognize the struggle and effort going into her work, even if they can’t identify with it.
Given how strong she sounds vocally, Simz deserves to take the reins on a few more choruses. Not that featured acts such as Little Dragon or Cleo Sol make bad features, they simply don’t measure up to the titanic presence of the headliner. “Sometimes we do not see the fuckery until we’re out of it,” she cautions but Simz, seated right in the heart of troubles of her own, made something quite remarkable out of it.
Based on the reverent and somber sendoff of “Flowers,” Simz appears a hesitant to join the cult of celebrity that took so many so young; Basquiat, Winehouse, and Cobain all receive shout outs. Fame and renown present equally daunting prospects of excess and loss of privacy. Not only does it pose a danger to her, this industry told her “she’s a liability and not an asset.” Why should she care to try and adhere to it? Amid GREY Area’s indefinites, there is one absolute: Little Simz is a big deal, and nobody knows that better than her.