With ‘Grey Area’, Little Simz Has Created A Savage And Vulnerable Rap Masterpiece
"Remain grounded and keep your intentions pure. Remember why you’re doing this."
“I didn’t know I was going to make an album the way I made Grey Area,” Little Simz muses through a fuzzy phone line.
It’s the day before the release of her third studio album, Grey Area. The famously introverted UK rapper sounds tired, which is understandable: it’s 10pm in London and the fatigue from months spent in the studio still feels fresh. Still, Little Simz, (born Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo) lights up when talking about the record, drawing analogies between football and the music industry that are sharp and surprisingly convincing.
“The silence around her is deafening,” music critic Daisy Jones observed back in 2016 in a lengthy ode to Simz’ second album, Stillness in Wonderland.
It was only three years ago that the Islington-born MC was finding it difficult to make her mark in the industry. “Little Simz is yet to receive a single major award,” Jones continues. “Not a MOBO, not a Brit Award, not a Mercury Prize, not a BBC Sound Of…Not even a cursory mention at one of our many other corporate masturbation ceremonies.”
Since then, Simz has toured with Lauryn Hill, Gorillaz, Anderson .Paak and Ab-Soul, and earned a coveted spot at the BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher — accolades that far outweigh the posturing of arbitrary awards shows.
Now, already critically celebrated less than a week since its release, Grey Area is Little Simz’ coronation.
The record serves as an exorcism from a quarter-life crisis…notes of loneliness, mourning, death, and rebirth all intertwine.
Ironically, the 24-year-old rapper has found clarity out of the chaos in her life and produced a record that is, in no uncertain terms, the best work of her career. Navigating a spectrum of emotions, Simz took to the studio to divulge them in writing, with the help of childhood friend and music producer, Inflo. “For the most part, it was just me and Inflo in the studio and no one else was allowed in the room,” Simz tells me, reminiscing about the arduous process of pulling emotions out for the album.
Grey Area is clearer in its intent, and ponders real-life moments in Simz’ life she had yet to share. On the surface, the record serves as an exorcism from a quarter-life crisis, but within the lyrics, notes of loneliness, mourning, death, and rebirth all intertwine on crisp neo-soul, jazz-infused, hip-hop beats.
Listening to the record before we speak, it is obvious that Simz is figuring it out, but musically she has hit the nail on the head. Perhaps it’s cliché to propose that the best music comes from the most vulnerable moments, but Simz is unabashedly honest and as the listener, it made me hear her words in ways I had not.
Processing the murder of her friend, the breakdown of a relationship, the isolation of touring and the upending tension of her 20s, Simz doesn’t have the capacity for derivative poetry, and it’s the rough edges that make her great.
“Are there any grey areas in my life?” She asks me, only to gloss over the moments that led her to flee to the studio for months. Trying to compel vulnerability from Simz, when she’s been so generous with it on her album, feels cruel.
On ‘Flowers’, the closing song on the record, Simz ponders the price of her success. Touching on the tragic and untimely deaths of Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, she ruminates on mortality and the power — and curse — of celebrity. It’s a peek into the darkest corners of her mind and more so her fears.
Today, Simz can let her fears subside as she celebrates a record that is likely to be praised as the best rap album of 2019.
This is your third album and the way you’ve approached writing this record is so different from your previous work. You’re a lot more personal on this and you do things you’ve never done before, like injecting humour and being freer and less meticulous. Was this the first time you made music as therapy?
I feel like music has always been a therapeutic thing for me but I think my approach going into this album is very much no rules and just kind of starting from scratch, a clean slate, a blank canvas and seeing how I get on. I’ve always written from a very reflective place and that was always going to come through.
But in terms of the style and the sound, it was all experimental really. Me and Inflo were getting in and just explorin’ literally, and he managed to pull up some really cool vibes.
I didn’t know I was going to make an album the way I made Grey Area, you know what I mean? I think my intentions will always be the same, in terms of expressing myself, so I’m happy to say that will always be the same. I recorded Grey Area in London, but the next record, I don’t know…I could come to Australia to record it might be a totally different project than if I had recorded it in the States you know what I mean? It’s just dependent on where I’m at.
What are the grey areas in your life at the moment?
Being told I should go to therapy but not wanting to go. That felt like a bit of a grey area. Coming out of a relationship felt like a bit of a grey area. Losing a friend and being in this headspace is a grey area.
Inflo, your producer on Grey Area, has been called the Timbaland to your Missy. Do you think that’s an apt comparison?
I get it, I definitely get it and I feel like it’s a great comparison for sure. I’m not mad at that. It was great to go back and forth with the one person and you can tell that was very open, and that’s when you draw the best out of an artist, and he’s got that with me for sure.
I had other guest producers, like Sigurd who produced a song called ‘Pressure’, and Astronote produced ‘Flowers’, and that was cool. But for the most part, it was just me and Inflo in the studio and no one else was allowed in the room. It was just us locking in, making vibes and I’m really lucky with Inflo.
It’s been talked about to death, but you are praised by the biggest rappers in the world — people like Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Yasiin Bey love what you do — how does that translate to real life?
You just take those things with a pinch of salt. As great as it is it’s not like me to get complacent or comfortable it makes you wanna go harder you know? In a sense, when they co-sign me or say really nice things about me, I have more eyes looking in my direction and I can’t let them down, let alone let myself down. It just makes me go harder, to be honest.
I have more eyes looking in my direction and I can’t let them down, let alone let myself down. It just makes me go harder, to be honest.
You auditioned for the role of Shuri in Black Panther, does this mean you want to get back into acting?
Yeah for sure, I definitely will start doing more acting stuff, it’s just timing. It’s in the works.
Anything you can tell us about?
Ah my agent is definitely keeping me busy so I’m looking but that’s all I can say [laughs]
You’ve been in the spotlight and doing interviews for years, so your 20s and your personal growth has been very public. What’s it like to watch yourself change over time?
It’s great [but] it’s mind-boggling though. It’s cool when I listen back to old songs. It definitely [takes] me back to a time in my life. I remember exactly what I was going through, I remember who I was around, how I used to dress.
I mean like everything like it’s so vivid but it’s cool that I get to document my life through music even if no one else hears it. It’s cool that I can listen back and experience it. Like it’s crazy that I went through that, that was my way to process or my mental state and that was the mentality I had. I see the things I’ve been saying throughout and how things I feel have changed yeah its a trip.
In 2015, in an interview you said: “I’m not a UK female MC, I’m an artist” you were 21 then, but today, on ‘Venom’, you rap: “They don’t wanna address that I’m the best here for the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries” and you continue to push that some people never give women credit because they “don’t like pussy in power”. Was there a shift in your thinking or do you still not like being labelled as a female MC?
Nah I still don’t like that label — at all. To be honest, when I first started getting into music, I would label myself as [female MC] because that’s what people labelled me as and I just went with it. So now I’ve started to think about that label, it doesn’t sit well with me.
So how does that differ to what you’re saying on ‘Venom’?
It’s just facts. I know that I have a very gifted mind, it’s not arrogant, I’m just blessed in that regard. I try and turn my blessings into more blessings. People know it, but because I’m a woman they find me intimidating and I’m a threat.
It’s like if you saw a girl on a football pitch surrounded by men and she’s scoring, scoring, scoring. As much as you probably root for her you still feel a bit intimidated because she’s a female…. Well I don’t really know innit because I’m not a guy, so I don’t know but I’m just assuming based off what I have experienced.
Do you think, on an international level, all rap coming out of the UK gets lumped into being labeled as grime? Is that frustrating?
Yeah sometimes, but I’m seeing it less now, especially in the course of this album campaign and the new music. I think people are just seeing me in a different light and not categorising me as [grime] so much anymore.
If you could go back in time, and speak to little 10-year-old Simbi, what would you say to her?
I would just say, to keep on keeping on. Surround yourself with good people and whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it. Remain grounded and keep your intentions pure. Remember why you’re doing this.
Little Simz’s new album Grey Area is out now.
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Jack Bridgland