As you can hardly have failed to notice, these are high times for UK rap. It’s a genre whose biggest stars regularly reach the top of the charts: Stormzy’s forthcoming third album is among the year’s most hotly anticipated and a recently published list of 2022’s biggest-selling singles so far features entries for Dave, Aitch and D-Block Europe. It’s all a long way from the days when the Mercury – always keen to nominate, and occasionally hand its award to, worthy British MCs – looked like it was doggedly supporting an area of music the general public had little interest in.
Little Simz has a high media profile – she’s critically acclaimed, has earned the praise of Kendrick Lamar and the patronage of Lauryn Hill, and has already won an Ivor Novello award for her 2019 album Grey Area – but commercially, at least, she seems to exist at one remove from the UK rap gold rush.
She’s never had a UK hit single. Her 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert entered the charts at No 4 – a vast improvement on Grey Area’s lowly 87 – but it was out of the Top 40 altogether two weeks later. There’s a noticeable paucity of big-selling female artists among British rappers, but there’s also the sense that her music isn’t really made of the same stuff as a lot of UK rap’s commercially successful tracks.
The kind of big, instantly recognisable samples that have powered recent hit singles by Tion Wayne, Digga D, ArrDee and Aitch are noticeable by their absence from Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, which features tracks influenced by Afrobeats, grime and trap, but largely rests on vintage soul atmospherics that have become a trademark of its producer, Inflo.
Inflo is also in the midst of an extraordinary purple patch: he produced Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka, which scooped the Mercury in 2020, and Sault, the mysterious soul collective he heads up, were nominated in 2021 for Untitled (Rise), which says something about the consistent quality of his work.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a hugely impressive showcase of his talents and influences: the ghost of 70s soul auteur Charles Stepney lurks around its orchestrations; the superb Protect My Energy has a distinct aura of early 80s boogie and freestyle about it. The result is an expansive, very classy-sounding album that deals in subtlety, rather than clobbering the listener over the head with the familiar.
Subtle and classy are adjectives that fit Little Simz’s lyrics equally well. She tackles a plethora of topics that range from gentrification (“I’m directly affected, it does more than just bother me,” she notes on Introvert) to gang violence to the complexities of familial relations, with nuance and sophistication and a rigorous avoidance of cliche. When tackling big topics, she always sounds conversational, never like she’s delivering a lecture. There’s also something impressively fearless about her approach: I Love You I Hate You’s reckoning with her absent father is a particularly powerful and soul-baring listen.
It’s also an album that regularly addresses her success, or lack thereof: “Ten years in the game, I’ve been patient”, “give me cheques and give me my plaques”. You do wonder whether winning the Mercury prize will make a huge amount of difference to her profile – there’s been a distinct sense of diminishing public interest in the awards for some years now. Less up for question is whether Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a worthy winner.