How do you feel lonely in front of thousands of people? Little Simz knows how.
The artist born Simbi Ajikawo has been recognized as an elite talent by practically everyone who has ever heard her spit, including Kendrick Lamar, who said she “might be the illest doing it right now.” But unbeknownst to her audience, Simz, 25, has battled a deflating sense of depression that comes the moment she closes her show.
“You’re on stage in front of thousands of people and then you go back to your hotel, and it’s just you,” she says over the phone from her native London. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don't love it. If I did, I wouldn’t do it. But it was a pretty intense time. It’s difficult to adjust to that, especially being 22, 23 at the time."
Now, after two critically acclaimed albums, a world tour opening up for Gorillaz, and rocking festival crowds numbering well into the thousands, Simz has released her third album, GREY Area.
Simz knows the trappings of fame are all “smoke and mirrors.” It’s one of the many emotions she works through on the album, which is named after the period in one's life when direction must be defined.
“Being dead in the center of my 20s, it feels like one big grey area,” Simz explains. “I started making [the album] in LA and when I came home to London I finished it, and I was so grateful to be home and get back to being creative and making music. I felt like I really, really needed it.”
The end result is an impressively focussed album consisting of 10 tracks, all with their own mood and substance. It’s short but sweet structure is reminiscent of classic albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Nas’ Illmatic.
“I didn’t want to oversaturate anything, to just rap for the sake of rapping,” she recalls. “I knew the album was done when there wasn’t much more I wanted to say.”
The album kicks in the door with slapping drums and a low-end bass that’ll blow your hair back on the stompingly funky “Offence,” with Simz declaring herself “JAY-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days.” Her attitude would be best described by her own lyrics: “Came through, swinging out the gate, no fucks.”
In more of her own words: “I really wanted to kickstart this album with that kind of punch and rawness, and have that set the tone. To have your attention. ‘Offence’ and ‘Boss’ really do that, and by the time you get to ‘Selfish,’ you’re getting to know another side of me.”
On the introspective "Selfish," Simz talks openly about the importance of self-love. “You get to continue to know me more as the album progresses,” she says.
This trend continues on “Therapy,” where she debates the use of speaking to her therapist, “Sherbet Sunrise,” where she demands that people “allow me to be human and be in my feels,” or “Venom,” where she unleashes her righteous anger about some of the sexism she has faced.
“All I cared about at the time was just cleansing, and doing my own self-healing,” she says, referencing her mental health during the lead up to and creation of GREY Area.
“If you haven’t dealt with certain things, you’re opening up a wound. At the same time, I think that’s what makes my shows so beautiful. There might be somebody else in the room who is going through similar things, and there will be something about the energy there that makes me feel like I’m not alone in that. I find peace knowing that.” —Little Simz
Despite evidence to the contrary, GREY Area is far from a maudlin album. It’s honest. But to be able to open like that, there needs to be a certain level of trust in the studio.
“You have to feel like you’re able to express these things without the fear of being judged,” Simz reflects. “I felt like it was okay to make mistakes, to be vulnerable and cry. At the end of the day, I’m pouring my heart out and talking about some real stuff. That’s not an easy thing to do. To then share it with the world, leaves me in an even more vulnerable position.”
Lending a helping hand through that process was Simz' long-time producer Inflo, who grew up in the same area of North London, Highbury. “He's someone who I’ve known since I was nine years old,” Simz says. “We just knew we had great chemistry. This time we were older and doing it for real, for real. If you’re close to someone in that aspect, it kinda shows on songs too.”
The classic one-rapper-one-producer formula also results in a pleasantly cohesive sound, that is, at times, more organic than her prior work.
“There’s so many different vibes on the album, it shows how versatile and diverse we both are as musicians and artists,” Simz says.“I’m fortunate enough to work with someone who helped my artistry in ways I couldn’t have even imagined.”
A great example of the chemistry between Inflo and Simz can be found on “101 FM,” a record that finds Simz sliding back into her grime roots. Bare London slang weaves effortlessly in and out of the breezy electronic melody, as she reminisces on her youth. The DJ further solidifies the track's London pirate radio feel on the outro.
“I think the beat brought it out of me, to be honest,” Simz says. “It was the easiest song for me to write because that’s what I grew up on. The flow just came naturally. It all felt like I was sixteen doing this. I still got it!”
Little Simz might be in the grey area, at least according to herself, but reflecting upon her album of the same name, it's obvious she's anything but aimless.
“This is what I’m meant to be doing,” she says.