PHOTO CREDIT: Evening Standard
the one and only Laura Marling. My representation of Little Simz is going to be a touch shorter because she has released fewer albums than Marling. The idea behind this series is to shine a light on modern female artists who will become iconic and legends in years to come – or, as they stand, are among the strongest artists in the world. Before I look at the discography and biography of Little Simz, one cannot argue against her rise and achievements. This year has been especially productive for the London-born rapper. Not only was her third album, GREY Area, nominated for a Mercury Prize (it lost out to Dave’s PSYCHODRMA), but she is also appearing in Netflix’s Top Boy. Go and watch the show if you can because the entire cast are powerful and turn in terrific performances. The fact the performances seem to pure and convincing is because cast members like Little Simz grew up around the sort of scenes we find on Top Boy. When speaking with The Guardian last month, Little Simz was asked about Top Boy and whether the show resonated with her:
“You grew up not far from Hackney, where the series is set. Did it ring true?
Yeah for sure. Every story that’s being told in this series, I’ve witnessed [a version of it] first-hand. Even the character I’m playing, I know this person in real life. It’s very close to home.
Was it surreal shooting a TV drama in the area where you grew up?
It was. It gave me another outlook on this area, because growing up here we felt like this place was worth nothing. It was essentially a shithole, there’s no opportunity here and nothing to do. And now we’re filming this Netflix series here. The contrast was surreal. But it felt great. As we were filming, people were walking past, going, “Top Boy’s back!” The community was super-excited and happy that we’re doing this and still remaining true, basing it in the same areas, keeping that realness.
Hackney has changed a lot over the past decade due to gentrification, and knife crime is on the rise. How do you feel about the area now?
There’s been some development, but there’s still a very long way to go and the same problems are there. Just making it clear, Top Boy definitely does not glamorise or glorify what’s happening, it’s just a real representation of our world today. This show is going to open up eyes and hopefully help ignite change”.
I think a series like Top Boy adds to the dynamics and potency of Little Simz’s work. Think about her latest album and every beat, line and expression seems to ring true and hit the mark. You can hear the conviction in her voice; for those who have not experienced the same upbringing and conditions as Little Simz and her peers, one can still identify and find something extraordinary in the music. Little Simz is such an amazing and popular artist because her music is essential and universal. It is not only about her world and life: the music throws out to the wider world and represents what is happening right now.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Simbiatu 'Simbi' Abisola Abiola Ajikawo was born in Islington, London to Nigerian parents. After studying at Highbury Fields School in London, she attended St. Mary’s Youth Club in Upper Street, Islington. Her music career really started to develop after she studied at Westminster Kingsway College. Little Simz has performed at Hackney Empire; she has been nominated for a Mercury Prize and played at the BBC 1Xtra Proms (in 2015) at the Royal Albert Hall. She has gathered acclaimed across the industry and is one of the fastest-rising stars around. Music has been part of her life since childhood but, even before she gained focus due to her television gigs, music was in the blood of Little Simz. Her first mixtape came out in 2010 and she put out material for several years after. A lot of Rap and Hip-Hop artists put mixtapes out before albums because, I guess, mixtapes are less constricting and allow for greater experimentation; they can be freer and slightly rougher and, by 2014, Little Simz was putting out E.P.s. In fact, she put out four E.P.s in that year and she caught the ear of promoters and D.J.s. 2015 was when the anticipated and exceptional debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, arrived. The album is a classic case of an artist with promise, but one still finding her true voice and footing. Looking back and it seems like a completely different beast to what we find on this year’s GREY Area. That said, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, is a fascinating start that showed, even in 2015, there was a genius spark. In this review from The Line of Best Fit , they underline how Little Simz’s confidence and brilliance is a natural evolution from her mixtapes and E.P.s:
“From the off, the level of lyricism and pure quality that Little Simz has often struck over her many mixtapes and EP’s is upped. A trip of emotions about combatting fame and the changes it can bring to a person’s life in different ways makes up the general atmosphere of the album, best articulated on “Wings”, a track filled with determination, bold statements and questions that see Ajikawo’s confidence and belief in her ability grow. It’s easy here to draw parallels to Raury’s high energy message of youthful revolution.
Across A Curious Tale…, Simz eloquently explores and relays her perception of fame through many perspectives, combing through not only the conceptual subject of the album but also her own levels of ability – talents of which we have no doubt. Outstanding tracks beside “Wings” include “Lights” and “Dead Body”, and with details of parts two and three of the latter already teased by Simz herself, we eagerly look forward to hearing what Kano & Stormzy can add to it.
Ultimately, Little Simz explores and challenges all perceptions of what she should be throughout A Curious Tale…. Flexing her rapping abilities, intertwined with her choice of instrumentals and interludes with “This Is Not an Interlude” and taking us out with the remarkable “Fallen”. It’s not only a very solid debut, but it’s one with the power to break down and challenge the way things are done in the music industry”.
I think A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons warrants reinvestigation because it sounds incredible and unique. The album received a few lukewarm reviews in 2015 but I do think it (the album) sounds incredible now; it seems to fit into the scene better now than four years ago – maybe A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons is more relevant in 2019. I am not sure exactly. In any case, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons remains a strong and vibrant debut album that would see Little Simz go on to bigger things.
Even if some reviewers were a little unsure of her debut and felt she had better in her, the success and recognition of A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons opened up doors. A year after she brought out her debut, Stillness in Wonderland arrived. Give the short spell of time between her debut and second album, one could forgive a little rush and lack of progression. In fact, Stillness in Wonderland was a big leap. Maybe it was increased exposure or Little Simz growing in confidence and command.
Reviews for her second album were largely positive. More websites and music sources were picking up on her music and there was this feeling that a star was emerging. Those who had been following Little Simz’s music since the start were aware of what she was capable of; everything seemed to crystallise on Stillness in Wonderland. In this interview from The Fader, some interesting details come to light:
“Since self-releasing her debut album in late 2015, Simz has been living in her own Wonderland of sorts. This year, she’s toured with Lauryn Hill and Nas, and became the first British MC to ever make Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list — all as an independent, unsigned artist. Her world’s bigger than it used to be, and a little more surreal.
Stillness can be loosely cut into two halves. Its first part is bright and optimistic. On “Shotgun,” Simz’s playfully confrontational verses bounce up against a sunshine-flecked hook sung by The Internet’s Syd. Embodying the dreamscape theme, the songs have a richer texture than Simz's usual stuff, all guitar melodies, delicate backing vocals, and, at one point, a swaggering saxophone. But while the lure of escaping into Wonderland can be tempting, Simz is always conscious of the importance of staying grounded. “I don't want to not know what's real and what's not,” she said. “That's what happens sometimes in the industry; things faze you or blind you.”
The record’s second half is darker. After the eerie strings that open “King of Hearts,” Simz’s voice gets notably lower, and grime MCs Chip and Ghetts add some world-weariness and manic lyricism, respectively. The album’s most somber moment, “Poison Ivy,” is also Simz’s most personal track to date. Over a downtempo guitar beat, Simz sings about the lies we tell ourselves in unhealthy relationships. “That's how my last relationship was,” she said of the track, which she produced herself. “It was toxic. I knew it, he did as well; the idea of it was a lot more appealing than the actual thing itself.”
Across Stillness, Simz's need to be real clashes with the urge to create a nurturing safe space for the listener, and for herself. In its grappling, the album has echoes of Solange Knowles’s A Seat At The Table. Neither Solange nor Simz comes to a concrete conclusion about how to live in a world that’s confusing and cruel, but both offer a place to escape into for a little while — without ever losing sight of truth. For Simz, imagination is a weapon, but she wants to make real change in the real world too. She raps about that goal emphatically over the laid-back groove of “Zone 3”: “There’s gonna be a revolution, better partake”.
The importance and depth of her music connected with a lot of people. I think 2016 is a year when Little Simz really sort of came into her own and, for want of a better phrase, found her voice. That sounds a tad insulting, but I think Little Simz grew and expanded between 2015 and 2016.
PHOTO CREDIT: Blair Brown
This sample review for Stillness in Wonderland shows what critics thought of the album:
“As she explores and conquers the different realms of Wonderland (fame & fortune, relationships, and her state of mind), Ajikawo finds herself stunted, a ‘stillness’ that affects her personally and professionally. Wonderland’s physical state surrounds her with people she doesn’t trust (“I don’t’ trust anyone but who I came with /Is that bad of me?”). Subsequently, it pushes her further into a mental escape where she internalizes this scrutiny. Her epiphany is revealed in “Low Tide” as the distractions of Wonderland recede to bare Ajikawo at her rawest, which is also her strongest. By the finale, “No More Wonderland”, Ajikawo sheds its spectacle, realizing that it is out of lessons to teach her.
“Real shit’s happening and my people need me/I’m out” she concludes, but thankfully she dropped in just long enough to deliver a truly fantastic record that defies the expectations people have of unsigned artists and female rappers. Ajikawo knows she’s on her way to something new, and she enjoins us to follow her instead of white rabbits. She already knows where they’re going, and it’s not nearly as interesting as where she’s headed”.
This sort of takes us to where we are now. Even though It was three years between Stillness in Wonderland and GREY Area, Little Simz’s current album is her strongest work. It seems her most relevant and powerful. I think the touring and experience has heighted the work of Little Simz and she is firing from all cylinders now. Her previous two albums were brilliant, yet I feel GREY Area is her peak so far. Not only has it just been nominated for a Mercury Prize, but I think the songs cut deeper; the delivery is more nuanced and there is greater musicianship and feel. I think Little Simz will go onto create a lot of spectacular albums and act as a role model. She is definitely under the skin of fans and critics alike. When speaking with Vice, we learn about the songs and Little Simz’s progress:
“Grey Area straddles Simz’s outward-looking sensibilities – the community of creative people she’s built around her, the influences she’s picked up through her own listening and her travels on the road – with tightly, inward-looking and reflective subject matter. From her mental health, to the strain of touring, to figuring out what exactly the fuck she’ll be doing in her late twenties, Grey Area digs into it all. “I had to re-assess a lot,” she says early in our conversation. “Friendships, personal relationships – all those things had to be looked at differently.” She chose to record this album in London to be close to those bonds. “I’d been travelling so much and it was just too much. It was like, ‘I can’t bear missing people and working myself tirelessly.’ I could see it taking its toll. So I just needed to make an album where I’m pouring out my heart and soul, but I’m also eating properly. Taking care of things that I need to pay close attention to.”
She’s not exaggerating. Simz started rapping aged nine, putting music up online and getting on mics wherever she could around London via her star-making youth clubs (I’m talking Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke as other alums). Born Simbi Ajikawo and raised in Holloway by her mother, a devoted foster carer, Simz’s gallons of creative energy needed an outlet. So as a teen she acted too, appearing on TV shows like CBBC’s Spirit Warriors and E4’s Youngers, but music kept drawing her back. By the time she’d started her music technology degree at University of West London, in Ealing, her career was taking off. And she soon realised she couldn’t do both. Quitting uni would show both sides to herself: her ambition, and her insistence on doing things her own way. Really, she’d been like that her whole life. As a child, she remembers, “100% my vibe was ‘I’m just doing my thing,’ literally. And as much as it may be shocking to people that I’m indie and doing music, if you know me from when I was little I’ve always moved in a way that is independent. I’ve always done my own thing. My friends and that, close people, my family, they know this about me: Simbi moves how she wants to move. I’m not following no this and that”.
GREY Area is one of the finest albums of this year, and there are few voices in music as arresting and promising as Little Simz. She has a long future ahead of her and, like Laura Marling last time around, it is amazing Little Simz has achieved so much and is at the level she is (she is twenty-five).
I will end things very soon but, as GREY Area received such warm praise, I want to bring in a review from The Independent:
“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”.
In terms of her language, ability and consistency, there are few out there like Little Simz. A lot of artists feel the pressure after such a well-received album, and they can fall apart: Little Simz seems to suggest there is even better in her! That is quite a scary thought, yet I am interested in seeing where she heads and what she comes up with next. If you have not immersed yourself in the world of Little Simz then do ensure you…
PHOTO CREDIT: Evening Standard
THROW your weight behind her.