The track, Venom, is available via:
The album, GREY Area, is available via: https://open.spotify.com/album/4Wwm4xg2748zhYuzDRFTgY?si=tdqkd2uYQKOh37rrx-l-Wg
1st March, 2019
I like this part of the weekend because...
it gives me the chance to review a bigger artist who I know I will have a lot to talk about. With her album, GREY Area out, I am interested in Little Simz and what she is putting into the world right now. I am focusing on a single track from the album – to allow me to go into detail regarding the track; this review would not give fair attention to all the tracks – but I wanted to talk about Little Simz in the context of British Hip-Hop/Rap and how the scene has changed; wordplay and how a dexterous lyrical approach is very rare these days. I also wanted to look at artists who are direct and are unafraid to document something important, darker and less commercial; what type of sound/artist will define 2019 and albums that are busy with sound and innovation – I want to end the piece by looking at Little Simz and where she might head. I have been a bit wary of British Hip-Hop and Rap the last few years. I put these genres together because they often overlap and it is hard to distinguish between them a lot of the time. In the case of Britain, I feel we have always lagged behind the U.S. – this is true when you look back a few decades. Consider the golden age of Hip-Hop – around 1986-1991 – and the magic that was emerging there. Tomorrow is the thirtieth anniversary of De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, and that arrived in a year that also saw Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique come into the world. Those albums were less political and charged than a couple released the previous year: N.W.A. and Public Enemy delivering sermons and songs that stuck in the brain and have inspired generations. Music coming from Hip-Hop around that time was keen to talk about harder subjects like political corruption and the plight of the black American and, since then, the U.S. have spawned some truly great artists.
In this country, we do not really have the same pedigree. Maybe it is because of the subject matter and how our Hip-Hop artists write. We do not have the same experience of U.S. artists and there hasn’t been the same legacy. We do Grime pretty well but I am seeing a breed of new Hip-Hop artists emerging that are defining modern Britain. Maybe it will not be as extraordinary as the best we saw in America decades ago but Little Simz is leading the charge here. She, in a way, seems to have an element of the U.S. masters from the 1980s and 1990s but is adding fresh flow and personality. I think the British Hip-Hop scene will grow and expand but it has not really had a leader that can compel a revolution. I think Little Simz is the best Hip-Hop voice we have and able to challenge the very best in the U.S. right now. Look at U.S. artists like Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B and it has been a long way since we have mounted a credible opposition. Little Simz’s career has been blossoming and she has been growing with each album. I can make bold declarations because her latest album, GREY Area, has scored big reviews and is full of wonderful songs. I love her confidence and how there is not a weak moment to be found. A lot of Hip-Hop artists can be a little lacklustre at times or place the vocal above lyrics. It is not often you get this complete and near-perfect artist who ticks all the boxes and strides into their own league. When it comes to Little Simz, she is honest and herself on the page but she has her eyes open and is talking about what is happening around her. There is this varied and extraordinary sound that you cannot resist and holds so much power. I shall move onto a new subject but I wanted to talk about Little Simz’s role in modern Hip-Hop and how she is changing the game.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Bridgland
I have mentioned lyrics and how some Hip-Hop artists are a little inferior. Hip-Hop is a genre that has always been noted for its amazing sense of wordplay and flow and, in the U.S., they have always done it better than us. Again, this might go back to history and the fact they can do certain genres better than we can – the U.K. is stronger when it comes to Folk and other genres. I do think a lot of conviction can be sourced from having lived in a tough situation or being surrounded by bad legacy. A lot of modern U.S. Hip-Hop artists are reacting to their neighbourhoods and what is happening around them. There are racial and economic struggles here but the experience is different in America compared to here. In the U.K., we have plenty of problems that can be addressed but I think Grime and Drill music is talking about it more. Hip-Hop, here, is not quite as sharp and broad as in the U.S. but I think Little Simz will start this resurgence and growth. The reason I say this is because of her wordplay and how she attacks music. There are two modes when it comes to Little Simz. She switches between these firm and confident raps that are bristling and cutting and then she has a more tender and revealing side that allows the tone to change and a different side to emerge. Sometimes, that switch can be felt in a single song and there is no predictable and premeditated template when it comes to her music. She has this energy and sense of unpredictable lust that makes her music so exciting. I love how she can name-drop artists like Jay-Z and put him in the same verse as William Shakespeare (Offence). There is cheekiness and humour that can combine with this confidence and real sense of self. Whether you call her a Rap artist or Hip-Hop innovator, it all leads to the same conclusion: Little Simz is one of the finest artists we have in the country at the moment.
A lot of the more potent and ‘real’ songs coming out right now are being made by Post-Punk bands. We have Drill and Grime music but I do not feel they get as much attention as they deserve. A lot of times, the music is confined to certain radio stations and it means the messages do not spread as far as they could. Maybe there is an intensity and sense of anger in the delivery that means many are put off or they only give it a brief listen. The most powerful and resonating tracks are those that can give power and potency but they are accessible and there is a degree of calm. Little Simz creates music that has these wonderful phrases and ideas wrapped together; music that brings different genres together and a broad palette that allows listens to investigate, wonder and get involved. If she were to create a more straight-ahead and brutal sound then her words would not be heard as much and they would lose their gravity. Little Simz can be accusatory and call out those who deserve it but a lot of her quality and appeal comes from the way she looks at herself and how far she has come. She is confident and unapologetic but she looks at music icons who died young and understands mortality is never far away and there is always a sense of the unpredictable around. These two mindsets create sensational music that has depth and soul but there is that youthful confidence and ambition. Not only do the lyrics strike and resonate but there are great hooks and compositional elements that elevate the words and brew their own wonder. There are few Rap/Hip-Hop artists who put as much care into the compositions but Little Simz shows great musicianship. Because of that, her music can appeal to those who are not usually fans of Rap/Hip-Hop and want something more accessible. That word might seem quite damp but accessibility is important today. The reason Hip-Hop gold of the past survived and created such heat was because of that mixture of powerful and striking words and music that had a richness and depth. Back then, there was a lot of sampling but modern artists like Little Simz are using cross-pollination and genre-splicing more. Because of that, I feel GREY Area will be one of these Hip-Hop records that gets talked about in decades to come.
PHOTO CREDIT: @tamcader
I am always fascinated by the classic age of Hip-Hop in the U.S. and whether things have evolved from there. It is harder to sample music and create big albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy) which is a shame. There is enough inspiration from political avenues so modern artists have a lot to work from. I feel Little Simz is a natural lead and voice because she has a confidence of who she is and how good she is. There is never any arrogance; more a sense she has come a long way and is not going to be cowed. Having felt a bit of isolation and strain living in London, she has taken some time to breathe and I think her current album is her most natural, ambitious and nuanced. The twenty-five-year-old Simbi Ajikawo amazed with her 2017 concept album, Stillness in Wonderland, and many asked how long it would be until she got the same mainstream credibility as many of her male peers. There is still this issue with gender-equality in music and how there are small and gradual changes – not as fast as one would like. Being a black woman in music is not an easy thing to handle and I feel we all need to do more. Little Simz is letting her music do the talking and she knows where she wants to head. The fact she is so confident and proud of what she is doing means people cannot ignore the music and there must be more opportunities at her feet. It cannot be long until she headlines festivals and, at the very least, she has to be seen as one of the best artists we have right now. Little Simz is someone who can talk about herself and her struggles but, like so many Rap/Hip-Hop artists, straying away from commercial avenues is important. I hear too many Pop records that take few risks and are following a formula. Listen to Little Simz and, on GREY Area, she talks about fallen idols and she sends out these barbs; she has a quick wit and has a hugely impressive flow. The combination is exceptional and the music busy and mind-blowing.
I feel 2019 is already shaping up to a more interesting and diverse year than 2018. We had some great albums last year but I feel, more and more, modern music needs to change its tone and stray away from the commercial mainstream. New albums from Little Simz, Julia Jacklin and Solange have impressed because they are a lot more striking and mature than so much of the mainstream best. Each artist is open and revealing but they do not merely focus on themselves and their own problems. Artists that look at the outside world and tackle issues head-on are to be commended. In Little Simz, we have a young woman who knows she has a role in music and will do what it takes to get there. She understands her brilliance but there is always this sense that obstacles are around and the path is not always clear. That sense of understanding, intelligence and maturity is another reason why Little Simz can lead a Hip-Hop revolution and define 2019. This year is very young still but female artists are making more of a stand. Perhaps it is a reaction to the comparative lack of attention they get and how hard they have to struggle. I like to think the reason why female-made artists are stronger is because of greater emotional depth and a finer sense of innovation. The men are ambitious when it comes to music but there is something about female artists that makes them more daring and exciting; a mentality that pushes music beyond the ordinary and a lyrical style that is both personal yet universal. Maybe that is my personal opinion but there is something in it. I do think there need to be big changes made and the industry cannot deny great female artists much longer. Small steps are being made but there is a long way to go before we see any real improvement and parity.
Before I come to review Venom – from GREY Area – it is worth looking at the albums that have received huge reviews this year and, for the most part, they have been made by women. There are many reason why female-made music is stronger this year and I feel the industry needs to react. Festivals are still imbalanced and I get the feeling artists like Little Simz have always been confined to genre-specific festivals. Her music appeals to those who love Rap and Hip-Hop but it is broad and eclectic. She could make a great headliner at any festival and I hope she achieved that next year. If we want music to progress and inspire generations then we need to give spotlight to artists like Little Simz. She has released so much incredible music and I feel a lot of her inferior male peers are given chances ahead of her. I am genuinely excited about the new wave of British Hip-Hop/Rap artists and what they are saying right now. I still think the U.S. has a stronger scene right now but we are spawning so many hungry and exciting young voices. This will continue and I think, at the forefront, are women. Perhaps I have said enough but it is important to put these thoughts out there and not let them stand. The industry needs to do more and it needs to recognise how good artists like Little Simz are. She has created an album that could well walk away with album of the year prizes – it is hard to see too many records beating GREY Area this year! The reviews are celebratory and ecstatic and it is wonderful to see a British artist getting so much respect in a genre that, in my mind, has always been dominated by U.S. artists. Her new album boasts so many wonderful songs but, rather than give each a small review, I wanted to focus on one that I feel stands out and deserves greater affection: Venom is a natural standout and sensational moment from Little Simz.
It was hard selecting one song to highlight from GREY Area but I wanted to look at Venom because it lasted longest in my mind. It is the shortest track on the album but that does not mean it is the least significant. In fact, its opening is the most stirring and unusual. We have these haunting and Hitchcock-like strings that sting and spook with their creep. It is a strong and unexpected opening that definitely opens up your eyes and makes you wonder where the song is heading. Maybe it is appropriate that a song called Venom would start with such a stir. I feel a lot of Grime and Rap music can be a bit boring and samey because the musical dexterity is not there. It is all the same beats and electronics and it seems like the music is there merely to act as a guide for the vocal. When it comes to Little Simz, she understands the important role the composition plays and how much power can be exerted from an original and exciting sound. She manages to conquer when it comes to lyrics, music and delivery. There are not many artists who achieve that and, before a word has been delivered on Venom, you know you are listening to someone who is leagues ahead of the competition. After the uneasy and tense strings, Little Simz comes in with a fast and unexpected delivery. She is not standing still and the heavy sound that introduced the song makes way for this very focus and top-of-the-mix vocal. She looks at mental-health and suicidality – “Minds fucked even more than I realised” – and there is this black and tense situation. A lot of artists are tackling mental-health right now and Little Simz does so in a very direct and urgent way. She can see the turmoil around her and, soon, she turns to misogyny and the fact she is not given her dues. Using words like ‘ovaries’ and ‘pussy’ to describe the discrimination is fresh and will turn heads.
Little Simz is direct and wants people to listen. At a certain point, the vocal quickens and it is almost impossible to keep up with Little Simz. It is amazing how she manages to keep her breath and deliver the words without breaking concentration. The words tumble to give the song more tension and urgency. Little Simz is falling and going down and she is asking someone – maybe those who attack her – to follow her. She does not want to hear apologise and she is looking for answers. She is not sure whether she is going insane and what is happening right now. At every stage, there are these scenes of violence and threats. A lot of times, one wonders whether the fear is psychological or physical. Little Simz talks about having a gun pointed at her and this danger lurking around every corner. Having talked about mental-health, I wonder whether a lot of these images are part of her imagination or the realities of the streets are being laid out. The heroine sees struggle behind doors and people losing their minds; she is finding men willing to attack her and take advantage and, in life and music, misogyny raising its head. It is a song that will get everyone thinking and you need to listen to it several times just to get on top of everything said. Venom is the most exhilarating song on GREY Area and delivers so much in a short period of time. Those new to Little Simz might favour songs such as Selfish to get their feet wet but I think Venom is a stunning offering that everyone needs to hear right away! She has created this masterclass in delivery, lyrical power and musical dexterity. There is nobody out there like her right now and festival organisers everywhere should realise what a talent we have in our midst!
She knows she is overlooked because she is a woman and she also understands how good she is. Little Simz spits and raps with such speed and directness. The words tumble out and, apart from the strings trying to keep pace in the background, it is Little Simz’s exceptional flow that captivates. She discusses bleak mental states and how she has never got that low – not one who will take herself out or let the world bury her. The venom coming from men and their oppression seems to weight the heaviest on her mind. After delivering this frantic and stunning passage, her voice cuts out and the song enters a new phase. Having heard lighter songs on GREY Area – such as Selfish (ft. Cleo Sol) – having this edgier and grittier sound is, in my mind, where she shines. The strings are replaced by a more booming drum (?) sound and the mood shifts once more. Whereas lesser artists might keep the same sound and show a lack of sophistication, Little Simz keeps the song snaking and, with each verse, brings in a new sound. She talks about things she has seen in the night: the dark crawl and the danger around; how it has affected her mind and why it would alarm other people. One of the biggest weapons in Little Simz’s arsenal is the fact she can be quite direct and bold with her language. There are expletives to be heard but they are never thrown in to cause shock at all. She is reflecting a true voice and is proving she is someone not be messed with. She talks about guys wanting blood and she is looking for the same. Whether she is being sexually harassed or there is violence on the street, the heroine is facing it down and warning she is not to be messed with. She chants the word ‘venom’ as a deeper voice also does the same – whether it is her voice processed or a man, I am not sure. The strings come back in and are less tense than in the introduction. I love how the violins add this sense of terror and gothic horror. It allows Venom to be a much more variegated and cinematic song than it would have been if it were just beats and electronics.
The juggernaut has been rolling and GREY Area has rolled out to the masses. The reviews have been four/five-star and I have not heard anything negative said about the album. It is rare when you hear an artist talked about in such fond terms with nobody offering even the slightest bit of constructive criticism. That is a sign you are doing something right and at the top of your game. Little Simz is far stronger than her male peers but she has also, on GREY Area, reconciled with a difficult past and you feel like she has addressed some issues that were troubling her. I get the sense of this young woman finding her feet and maybe feeling buried by the city and the people around her. She has not long entered the twenty-sixth year of her life and many could forgive her for having worries and fears. If the young artist feels strange at times, you would not really sense too much of that from her latest record. The sheer confidence and boldness throughout means you are always hooked and standing to attention. Her sound is not simply attack and pummel without range and emotional variation. She is someone who can switch between a more openhearted sound and rising and striking without too much notice. It is a heady brew and great mix that will appeal to the Hip-Hop/Rap elite and those who are new to the genres. It is hard to ignore Little Simz and I urge people to catch her perform. She is still giving interviews and busy spreading the word when it comes to her album. I know it is hectic but she seems to love every moment. It is wonderful hearing her talk about her music and how it came together. When she has chance to hit the road then I would recommend you watch the songs come to life on the stage. She is a fantastic live act and someone who can win every heart. I am not sure what her touring plans are like but look at her social media channels and she will keep you updated. There are few artists who are as sharp, lyrically, and have such a confident voice. It is exciting to think where Little Simz could head and what comes next for her. She is still so young and being this developed and assured this early, to some, could be a danger. In Little Simz’s case, I feel she can grow even stronger and her music can get even better – which is a scary thought when you think about it! We have one of the world’s best young artists performing in the U.K. right now and GREY Area is the album to beat this year. I do not think there will be anyone who can topple Little Simz’s masterpiece this year but, as others try, play the music and realise why many people are calling her...
A genius and innovator to watch.
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