No artist gets to a fourth album these days without having a pretty good sense of who they are. Over the past 11 years, Little Simz has proven herself to be one of the UK’s finest rap exports, flawlessly consistent across various media including a role in Netflix’s Black British drama Top Boy. Despite her evident successes, she can’t seem to escape perceptions of being “underrated” – of paddling steadily as her male peers rocket to international recognition.
That was, until April 2021, when her comeback single Introvert announced itself with blazing military drums and a spectacular video set in the National History Museum. “I study humans, that makes me an anthropologist,” she rapped. “I’m not into politics but I know it’s dark times … But if I don’t take this winner’s flight that’s career suicide.”
Introversion is considered synonymous with shyness, but on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (an acronym of her nickname), Simbiatu Ajikawo demonstrates that she has no shortage of bold, cinematic vision. She makes up for a lack of travel during the pandemic by stamping her musical passport with the influences of a wide diasporic sound. Her Nigerian heritage is in fine hip-winding display on Point and Kill (featuring Obongjayar), while Protect My Energy layers motivational mantras over 80s Miami drums, balancing out the record’s heavier moments with a keen sense of play.
She keeps samples and features to a minimum. We get a hint of Smokey Robinson on the loose Two Worlds Apart, and are reunited with old collaborator Cleo Sol on the silky-smooth Woman (think Drake’s Nice for What divorced from the male gaze), but for the most part, she sticks with regular collaborator Inflo, a London producer whose deft, subtle touch has seen Simz right since 2017’s Mercury-nominated Grey Area. (Given that he recently produced the best bits of Adele’s 30, Simz is not this album’s only star on the rise.)
Simz is a private person, and yet Introvert is impressively wide-reaching. She is newly generous here with her vignettes of family life, driven by the desire to recalibrate her post-pandemic priorities as an aunt and sibling. On Little Q, she reconnects with a cousin on the other side of the Thames to learn more about his near-death brush with knife crime, while I Love You, I Hate You sees her attempting to find peace with a father who has disappointed her and to ensure she does not carry that fear of rejection into a new relationship. It seems to be working: I See You’s old-school R&B is blissful with sleepy Sunday morning vulnerability, while How Did You Get Here is a tear-jerking stocktake of the artist’s journey so far. A gospel choir frames her determination and gratitude: “I’m the version of me I always imagined when I was younger.”
A narrative journey in the truest sense, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is upfront about the sharp sense of self-doubt that so often chases the sweet intoxication of success. Throughout the record, The Crown’s Emma Corrin appears as a plummy voiced narrator, both guardian angel and chiding presence. The character serves to poke and prod at Simbi’s worst fears: “One foot out of line and you will be ridiculed.”
It’s a relatable pressure. After the resurgence of Black Lives Matter last year sparked a renewed commitment to diversity, the experience of finally feeling “seen” as a Black creative often falls somewhere between flattery and self-doubt, wondering when the rug might be pulled out from under you. But what magic can occur when you actually back yourself to try?
“Instead of sayin ‘simz is underrated’ why don’t you stop being sheep and change the narrative?” the artist tweeted on the album’s release. If 2020 was the year that made introverts of us all, maybe 2021 was an opportunity to recognise that some of those private energies are not only worth protecting, but celebrating. Call her underrated if you wish, but it seems to have paid off: Little Simz’s unabashed self-ownership made for the year’s best rap album.