“I disregarded all opinions and continued my mission/Unapologetically I be bossin’ it, getting better with age/Got it back never lost it,” north London rapper Little Simz spits on “Boss”, one of the standouts from her new album Grey Area.
The 25-year-old born Simbi Ajikawo is one of the most talented and prolific pioneers of UK rap, but also one of the most underrated. “The silence around her is deafening,” one article in Noisey observed back in 2016. With praise from Kendrick Lamar, five EPs released by the time she was 21, tours with Lauryn Hill, collaborations with Gorillaz and two critically praised albums – including 2017’s excellent concept album Stillness in Wonderland – fans and critics alike wondered what else she could do to find the kind of mainstream success enjoyed by so many of her male peers.
Yet you’d be hard pushed to find a moment over the past few years where Simz has commented on this issue herself. Instead, she’s been busy honing her craft for Grey Area, which sees her land on a new, bolder sound assisted by her childhood friend – the producer Inflo [Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate] – for a record that incorporates her dextrous flow and superb wordplay with an eclectic range of influences. The album takes in everything from jazz, funk and soul to punk and heavy rock, plus three carefully chosen features.
Simz flips between two tones: bristling and unapologetic, and warm and reflective. “Offence” is the former, with tongue-in-cheek bars that have her hailing herself as “Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days”. So, too, is “Boss”, with its killer bass hook and distorted punk vocals. Elsewhere, she considers the impact of her own ambition: “Wanting to be legendary and iconic, does that come with darkness?” she asks on closer “Flowers”, reflecting on her idols Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse.
There’s another subtle nod to Winehouse on “Therapy”, which is anchored by her extraordinary bass player, in the way it recalls the late artist’s biggest single “Rehab” on the chorus. Simz has said making this album felt cathartic. “Selfish” assesses her independence, while “Boss” lets rip at the man/men who disrespected her. “Venom”, which opens with a shiver of violins, is so menacing you wonder what kind of fool would dare to get in her bad books. What Simz does here is phenomenal. This is an album – and artist – to cherish.
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