Photos by Mathew Parri Thomas.
“People are dying. Who actually cares about any of this stuff?”
As human beings, we have a tendency to get wrapped up in the minutiae of our individual existences – reading the bleak things going on in the news can be overwhelming when we’re already so inundated by work drama, relationships, money, and even fully trivial stuff like what it means when someone hasn’t watched our latest Instagram Stories. But there’s a sense of confusion and guilt too, when you start to question your priorities in life: are they the right ones? Have you already made bad, selfish choices? Should you be directing yourself towards things that will “make a difference” in the grander scheme?
For an artist, that sentiment is manifest in a lyric from London rapper Little Simz’ latest album – “People are dying / who gives a fuck about making hits?”.
Down a crackly phone line, Simz (real name Simbi Ajikawo) is discussing that bar with me: “I get caught up in irrelevant things when there are bigger things I could focus my energy towards,” she sighs. “And I don’t. I worry about the small things. So I guess that line was me speaking to myself, really.”
There are murky in-between places in life where there are no clear answers: and the older we get, the more it feels maybe there is no certainty in anything – nothing is black and white. With lyrics like, “Afraid of the answers to questions I never ask”, it’s for this reason the North London rapper has named her exquisite third album GREY Area. The record doesn’t sit in one particular genre – she spits, she soothes, even screams her thoughtful bars over everything from soulful boom-bap to twinkling keys to howling guitars. “At the time I was making the record it felt like that was the space I was in,” she explains, “Realising that things are a lot more complex than they may seem, so I was peeling back more layers in myself and learning more about myself.”
Simz’ work has always gracefully delved into self-reflection, but this time around it all feels more fully-realised as a concept: not only is her delivery more assured, and the production (largely done by her childhood friend Inflo) phenomenal, but the theme also seems more forthright. The track ‘Therapy’, for example, finds her sitting across from a therapist and growing frustrated (“I see the way you look at me like I’m some sort of charity / the only reason I come is so I can get some clarity / and it didn’t work”).
It transpires this is all an imagined scenario: “I’ve never actually been to therapy, so it’s more how I might talk to a therapist and imagining myself in his or her office, coffee table, sitting on a sofa… I’ve been told I should try therapy, but I didn’t really get the idea of talking to a stranger and paying them by the minute – it just didn’t appeal to me. So I just decided to write about it instead. That’s my one form of therapy.”
It’s not that she’s writing off the possibility of trying therapy one day, but as a self-described introvert, for now Simz’ work is the space that allows her to express her anxieties out loud: “I know that I open myself up to the world, and it puts me in a very vulnerable position – but it’s my way of dealing with things. And I’m very grateful that I have music – like some people deal with things in a negative way: some people turn to substance abuse, or whatever it is, to deal with what they’re going through. I’m very lucky to have an outlet like music.”
As someone who prefers to keep things inward in her everyday life, I suggest it must be a surreal feeling to get on stage and speak so openly about what’s going on in her head: “It is tricky – sometimes when I go and perform songs and I’m not over certain things then it’s like opening up a wound that I haven’t let fully heal. But it comes with the gig, isn’t it? It’s part of being an artist.”
That sentiment of getting in front of the crowd and being fully vulnerable adds an extra layer to how she describes some of the tracks on the album. ‘Boss’, for example, is a searing, thrilling guitar-anthem that is one of the only non-cynical iterations of a woman’s empowerment anthem in recent times, with its refrain of “I’m a boss in a fucking dress”. For Simz the track was not, as I wonder aloud to her, a reaction to a particularly shitty interaction with a man – but instead a more abstract situation: “It’s like, if I were to walk into a boxing ring, how would I feel?”
The song, which was first released as part of TV series Insecure’s soundtrack, was written in the back of an Uber she says – a space, it transpires, where she writes a lot of her songs. Indeed, while last album Stillness In Wonderland found Simz travelling non-stop, writing and recording in different time zones and operating on little sleep, this album was made in London and, accordingly, afforded her time to be more grounded with it. “I was able to hone in more on my thoughts and feelings, and took time to understand certain emotions and write about them as I was stationary at home in London. I was in a better physical state making this – though of course mentally I’m still going through the motions.”
Beyond that willingness to get deeper into her demons than ever, and the sublime sense of confidence that oozes from her flow these days, Simz’ growth on GREY Area is tangible in the smaller details too. So quick that you almost miss it, she spits, “n****s wanna see dead bodies / prolly not” over the dissonant strings on the cinematic ‘Venom’, in reference to standout track ‘Dead Body’ from her first album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons.
“I know that I open myself up to the world, and it puts me in a very vulnerable position– but it’s my way of dealing with things. And I’m very grateful that I have music…”
I did try and be a little clever with it,” she says with a small laugh when I point it out. “I hope to do it in stuff always, but for me ‘Venom’ is like the ‘Dead Body’ of this album, if that makes sense? On each of my three albums there are songs that are of the same vibe, but with an evolved me. So, for example, ‘Dead Body’ on the first album to ‘King of Hearts’ on Stillness In Wonderland, and now ‘Venom’. Like it’s all in a similar vibe, but it’s just an evolved version.”
On GREY Area, Simbi Ajikawo is still unravelling herself and her life – what her priorities should be, how best she can look after herself, how she can exist as a woman in a space that might try push her down, her artistic evolution, and how best she can use her art to provide a space for people feeling a similar way.
Indeed, before the call ends I ask if she has any final words people ought to know about the record, and she replies: “If anyone does listen to this or feel like they can relate to it, we’re all figuring it out, man. You’re not the only person that feels like where they’re at is very complex and confusing. You’re not alone.”
Live: EartH on October 29th