creation from confusion: little simz embraces ‘grey area’

March 1, 2019
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Little Simz, aka Simbi Ajikawo, is at a weird part of her life. No one prepared her for how hard and confusing this stage of adulthood would be ,and her new album, GREY Area, is a reflection of that realization. Although her lyrics would tell you that she’s “afraid of questions she never asks”, her commitment to exploring experiences, relationships and how she processes what she feels over the course of 10 tracks betrays a certain confidence, even if she doesn’t feel it yet. So we chat about who she thinks she’s becoming, why her music is closer to grime than you think, and encouraging the next generation to say whatever they need to with their chest.

GREY Area picks up where 2016’s Stillness in Wonderland left off, Simz stepping out of a high-concept fairytale about fame and into real life. There’s the balls-to-the-wall “Boss,” an explosive, ‘90s-style production on which she lets you know she’s a “boss in a fucking dress,” so you should check yourself. Simz tackles self-love on “Selfish” and losing love on “Sherbert Sunsets,” a trigger-happy track with a bassline warped enough to make you uneasy long before the stinging revelations kick in. And then there’s the abstract “Flowers,” a ghostly eulogy featuring a soul-stirring hook from Michael Kiwanuka, for the members of the 27 Club, an age she’s yet to reach.

Though at 25, Simz, born to Nigerian parents in north London, has already been crowned as one of best MCs to ever come out of the UK. She’s an independent artist with endless creative vision and healthy work rate (six EPs, four mixtapes, now her third album to her name since 2013), who’s toured with Lauryn Hill, been name-checked by Kendrick and supported by Jay-Z. Her lyrics can be playful or pack a punch, but never lack substance. So why hasn’t she taken over the world? To quote a line from the album, it’s “for the mere fact that [she’s] got ovaries.” GREY Area is set to change that.

Live instrumentation plays a significant role here. Cleo Sol, Little Dragon, Chronixx and Kiwanuka deliver breathy vocal features, while flutes and strings create musical scenes straight off a ‘70s film soundtrack. (Simz confirms the suspicions that she only listened to jazz and funk artists like Billie Holiday, Curtis Mayfield and Fela Kuti while recording it.) The album is produced entirely by Kiwanuka’s collaborator Inflo, a close family friend who guided the music so that she could focus on the pen and the paper. Session musicians were introduced early on in the recording process, the band becoming the album’s foundation before the words were perfected, while Simz was still working out, in her own words, “What can I talk about where people aren’t like, ‘I’m not hearing anything new here.’”

For someone who was born and raised in London, the uniqueness of her sound, which falls closer to Kendrick than Stormzy, is always a hot topic. If you assess the UK music chart you’ll find afro-pop, some grime and an increasing number of UK drill tracks. UK Drill rapper Headie One, who Simz appears to be a fan of, recently topped the chart and Russ’ “Gun Lean” has been in Top 40 for nine weeks. But Simz doesn’t make drill or grime or afro-pop. She is carving out her own lane, and is amused that this independent creativity continues to surprise people. “I’m someone that has always done my own thing — just in life. I’m not going to prove a point, to show that I’m not a part of any scene and you can’t box me in. I’m just naturally not like that.”

To say explicitly that Simz doesn’t engage in other genres dominating the UK music scene is to overlook the context of some of her best work, new material included. In her own words, “101[FM] is a grime tune” that she made “for us [Londoners].” Hidden between flourishes of the Japanese koto at a tempo that’s drastically shy of grime’s 140 BPM, are references to a “Shubz [party] on a Friday”, “gunshots in the air”, grime’s sign of approval and an outro that nods to pirate radio sets broadcast from high-rise flats. Even the eery strings that lie beneath her breathless verses on “Venom” seem like a variation on old-school instrumentals such as ‘Hands In The Air’, ‘Ghetto Kyote’ and ‘Snowman’. And if that doesn’t sway you, this freestyle is proof enough. But while she was raised on grime, American greats like Busta Rhymes weren’t far off either. “I also grew up on ‘90s rap, which is like ‘Boss’. I just like to dip in and out of different things.”

Dipping in and out of things may be a throwaway comment on Simz’ part, but as she tells me more about “peeling back the layers” of herself at this time of her life, learning and trying different things is exactly what she’s been doing.

When I first walked into the plush meeting room we’re speaking in, Simz was having her picture taken. You would think the process is unremarkable to her, considering how many shoots has to endure – “If it’s not a [photo], it’s a video or someone wanting to take a picture with me” – but GREY Area has become an unlikely outlet for her own (initially private, now very public) photography. Despite the prominence of striking imagery with each single, snapping photos remains a low-stakes way for her to be creative. Every song she records feels “jaded” by the reality that everyone will hear it and have opinions.

“Do you cook?” she asks, and I can already see where she’s going. “The minute you’ve got people coming over for dinner it’s like, I don’t know if this is suited to everyone’s taste. I can cook, but you might not like the way I spice up my tings”. Photography gives her a chance to focus on something and someone else, and it just so happens that she’s really good at it.

When ‘Offence’ dropped, so did her first artwork. Four young girls of color loom into the frame screaming a toothy-but-silent bloody murder in army vests and camouflage paint. The song comes with the killer line, “I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend,” and when she wrote it, Simz knew it was something special. “This feels like a chant,” she says excitedly, “like the new generation-type shit where you’re not gonna silence us.” So it was only natural that the image she shot spoke directly to the young girls who she hopes will grow up to say it with their chest too. “I wanted those girls to know: You’re gonna grow into women one day and you’re gonna look back and say I was involved in something like that from young. Hopefully that will follow them through to whenever they are in life.”

There are few other moments on GREY Area where you can feel the weight of her words. Simz wouldn’t call herself political. She sometimes goes as far as to remove herself from seeking things out, explaining, “I feel like I take on things and it gets a bit much for me”. She can’t, however, ignore what she sees happening in the Black community. “All we ever know is pain, all we ever know is rage” is a lyric that sums up what many are feeling, as the number of Black boys and girls dying from knife and gun violence rises. “I’m aware. I know people who are very much involved in a particular kind of lifestyle,” she says.

According to the Office of Nation Statistics, England alone had 285 knife killings in the year to March 2018. Despite the Black population making up only 3.5%, they accounted for 25% of the deaths, the highest proportion since records began. Music is powerful. That much is obvious from the police’s short-sighted crackdown on drill music. But Simz doesn’t “glamorize”, “romanticize” or even preach to people who are caught up it in. Instead, with “Wounds,” she focuses on capturing the humanity of the kids that headlines don’t care to show. “I know you are lost inside, and feel like no one cares about you, I do, feel like no one loves you, I do”. But she acknowledges, that “it’s gonna take more to break the cycle”. There’s a limit to how much one voice can make a difference, but when your one voice of many, there’s only so much you can do. “I just wish that there was more music out there that would encourage… but I can’t do it alone.”

As Simz publicist puts her head round the door to mark the five minutes I’ve got left, the conversation comes full circle. The album that she poured so much into is going to out into the world, so what is she looking forward to? Her response is so quick I’m not 100% convinced I had finished my sentence. “The live shows. I’m excited to bring these songs to life on the stage.” I once saw Simz perform at a small benefit gig and even then, she was serving arena-level energy. It’s a guaranteed moshpit — as it’s bound to be when she comes to play at AFROPUNK Paris in July. But there’s an element of trepidation that comes with that energy.  The cost of her vulnerability is that there’s some stuff she might not be done with yet. “Sometimes when I perform songs, I realize, ‘Actually I’m not over this.’ Or, it’s like opening a wound that you’ve not let heal. But for everyone else, I want people to have lived through the songs by then, hopefully, and wanna sing it back.”

Little Simz’s new album GREY Area is out now, wherever you stream music. See Simz live at AFROPUNK Paris, July 13-14