Little Simz: Our New VBF
One of the best rap albums of the year so far, Grey Area has cockiness and vulnerability
Little Simz: “Unapologetically I be bossin’ it, getting better with age. Got it back, never lost it, my legacy remains”
“Me again, allow me to pick up where I left off. The biggest phenomenon and I’m Picasso with the pen.” London rapper Little Simz opens up her third album Grey Area with rightful confidence on the lead single Offence. “All I do is kill shit, shit, even when I’m chillin’” she continues, “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days.” Not entirely tongue-in-cheek – she has the approval of both Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill – but just as she delivers cockiness with panache, she plays her vulnerability in the same hand.
Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, born in Islington to Nigerian parents, has been releasing music since 2010 and while she has always aimed high with big ideas – her 2016 album Stillness in Wonderland was a project of self-examination projected through The Looking Glass – she has found her sheen as an artist on Grey Area, boosting her message of independence and honing her voice as she goes along. Not only is this the makings for one of the best rap albums of the year, but she’s the perfect candidate for our VBF.
Identifying as a “boss in a f*cking dress”, she takes a direct hit against anyone that has undermined her
Grey Area is an examination of where this 25-year-old is in her life right now, with the “grey area” referring to the wilderness of possibility that is your mid-20s and battling your way to success. Using live instrumentation in the studio instead of relying on samples and mostly produced by her childhood friend Inflo, Grey Area is a slicker body of work than her previous material, but there is a defiance in her lyrics. Boss, the album’s second single, made its debut in September 2018 on actress and writer Issa Rae’s HBO-produced comedy series Insecure. Identifying as a “boss in a f*cking dress”, she takes a direct hit against anyone that has undermined her and rolls out her callbacks over a neo-funk beat: “I disregarded all opinions and continued my mission. Unapologetically I be bossin’ it, getting better with age. Got it back, never lost it, my legacy remains,” she raps, “Rejected the dotted line but not the pen. Invested in myself, that was money well spent”.
There’s a real sense of relief on Grey Area, a relief that Little Simz is at the point in her career that she wants to be
There’s a certain clarity with her storytelling. By combining societal observations and personal experiences, she delivers a very knowledgeable perspective. Wounds, her collaboration with the Jamaican reggae artist Chronixx, examines the link between gun violence and peer pressure while taking down the false posturing of other rap stars: “You idolize the rappers that I brung on tour but their lifestyle, never lived that, never did that”. All across Grey Area, she analyses other rappers and MCs and the influence she drew from them but on 101 FM, she namechecks artists like Busta Rhymes, Dizzee Rascal, Ludacris and Kano as influences while narrating her own ascension in the London grime scene.
There’s a real sense of relief on Grey Area, a relief that Little Simz is at the point in her career that she wants to be. She counts the personal losses and the uphill battles as obstacles that pushed her even closer to her goal. Even when romantic disappointment works its way into her life, she uses that letdown as a sharp-shooting pun on Sherbert Sunset: “You was meant to be in my Grammy speech, your entire loss”. Closing with Flowers, a collaboration with BBC Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka, she shows a softer side while praising the talents of Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other members of the 27 Club. Acknowledging the complexities of retaining a public persona and facing personal demons, it’s a bittersweet deconstruction of the legacy that Little Simz plans to leave behind.