The waiting game can be long and lonely – just ask Little Simz. The 25-year-old rapper has released two albums and will drop her third, Grey Area, this week. There have been props from Kendrick Lamar – who once called her “the illest doing it right now” – and tours with Lauryn Hill and Nas. A spot on Forbes’s prestigious 30 Under 30 list. A track with Gorillaz and another that was featured on hit HBO TV show Insecure. And yet for the past nine years, Simz, AKA Simbi Ajikawo, has evaded household-name fame. Her last album, 2017’s Stillness in Wonderland, was reviewed positively but didn’t reach the Top 100. Her star has risen in tandem with grime’s renaissance and yet that hasn’t translated into the kind of accolades given to Stormzy and Skepta. You do not see her name atop festival bills like her contemporaries J Hus and AJ Tracey. “The silence surrounding Little Simz’s name,” said one critic, “has become deafening.”
Perhaps that’s because the north Londoner was always a touch ahead of her time. Born to Nigerian parents in Islington, Simz starred in various television shows and released a whopping five EPs before her first album, in 2015. That was long before Cardi B had charted with Bodak Yellow and Stefflon Don sashayed on to sold-out tours. Simz was making weird, narrative hip-hop with bold concepts (Stillness in Wonderland came with a graphic novel, an exhibition and festival) before triple-threats like Kojey Radical bounced forth, blurring the boundaries between performance artist, poet and rapper. Her tunes trilled with trumpets before the UK jazz scene properly erupted and made those sounds popular once more. (She has also, it’s important to stress, remained independent throughout, self-releasing her records through her Age 101 imprint.)
Or maybe it’s because Little Simz’s sound hasn’t hit the right note yet. There is a lot to be said about the fight to occupy a space when your male peers are taking up all the room, especially in the bloke-heavy world of rap. Women, for the most part, have had to create new paths while their male counterparts get given a free pass down the established ones – even more so, it seems, when your image is not overtly sexualised. Simz’s approach has been to explore the areas in-between – mixing up genres, being more experimental than her peers – but it has sometimes been to uncertain effect.
At first, her music was lumped in with grime, but in fact it cast around for other sounds: dubstep, jazz, down-tempo hip-hop, neo-soul. Reviews, including my own in 2015, suggested that while she had undeniable technical flair, Simz still had to “find her voice”.
By which they meant, partly, that she didn’t quite fit in with whatever was currently going on in music. Maybe Simz didn’t break through because female MCs used to be a hard sell. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t grime enough for grime fans but too grime for, say, 6 Music listeners (the type that like Young Fathers). But while her last album, brave and huge in scope, was certainly incomparable to anything else at the time, it’s also possible that she just needed some bigger tunes.
On Grey Area, those are in abundance. It swings. It grooves. It’s not bogged down by a self-consciously poetic concept. And it feels like a record rather than a showcase, anchored by the production work of Simz’s childhood friend Inflo. He is the Timbaland to her Missy, and gives her songs the glue they needed. The producer seems to have taken notes while working with Danger Mouse on Michael Kiwanuka’s 2016 album, Love & Hate (in an industry game of tag, Kiwanuka appears on Grey Area’s final track, Flowers). There are big, chunky breaks, fat funk dollops, the crackle of US soul, touches of cosmic jazz and cinematic strings – also reminiscent of Adrian Younge’s work with Ghostface Killah. The lead tune, 101 FM, features the best instrumental since Stormzy’s Shut Up.
Simz, meanwhile, has unlocked a new level of versatility. Her tracks were always soberingly serious, but here there is humour, and songs that border on the feelgood. Offence is Simz at her most Missy, deadpanning playfully bravado lines such as “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days” over a deliciously grainy Quincy bassline. On Boss, she hollers through a megaphone like a whooping bluesman as she takes out the men who distract her.
Simz has said in interviews that she dislikes being referred to as a “female MC”, but gender inequality has proved a fertile ground: on Venom, she spits “they don’t wanna address that I’m the best here for the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries” over taut, horror-score strings. Men, she continues, never give women credit because they “don’t like pussy in power”. She is not quite the voice of a generation – her tracks are too inward-looking for that – but she could be, given time. On Wounds, with a pleasing croon from Jamaica’s Chronixx on the chorus, her bars survey gang crime and gun violence with a detached brilliance.
Simz has said that making Grey Area was “like therapy”, after a dark spell where she questioned the isolation of trying to, as the cliche goes, make her own way. Smidgens of her struggle with alienation and questioning her career path pepper her tracks – “I’m so selfish,” goes Cleo Sol’s sweetly sung chorus on Selfish, while Flowers looks at the “27 club” of dead stars and wonders what the real price of fame is.
Mega-stardom might never be hers in the end, but Grey Area sets out a different kind of stall anyway: Little Simz is a slow-burner, and now that she’s found a slicker sound, there’s no telling where she might go.
• This article was amended on 27 July 2021 because an earlier version erroneously said that the producer Inflo was born Alex Baranowski. The latter is a composer and arranger, not connected with the Grey Area album.