Little Simz, Grey Area— Si Sharp -
Nine years into her rapping game, and still only 25 years old, Simbi Ajokawo has just dropped one of the best albums of 2019 thus far. “But we’re only two months into the year, stop using meaningless hyberbole!” we hear you cry. OK, fair point. Is it acceptable if we make it the first album in our ‘album of the week’ feature? “Well, OK but there will have to be an album every week, or you’ll invalidate the whole concept” you rather pushily respond. And that’s the story of how you forced us to write an album of the week column.
Simz has stepped up on Grey Area. We’ve always liked her wordplay but her previous albums failed to connect. That changed last year when she released Boss, a bass heavy mean funk jam reminiscent of the Beasties’ dirtier 90s output but with a far less playful attitude. It was exactly the kind of music we wanted to hear in 2018. Outspoken and assertive but direct and controlled. The “Boss in a fuckin’ dress” made the perfect soundtrack for a year when the women of the world declared “we’ve had enough of your shit”. It was a sentiment that manifested in every genre from pop to techno, and Boss set the bar super-high.
Boss was the personal as political and Grey Area continues this theme. It’s not remotely an album of diss tracks but lyrically she’s defining herself in opposition to other people and their expectations. This is pretty well trodden thematic ground for hip hop but this is pride not boasting, and she’s the first to accept vulnerability. Awareness of herself, others and her environment are part of her strength. There’s something about her delivery and perspective that make it captivating and affecting. This shit will make you strut.
The sound is all live instruments but aside from the last song Flowers, the album’s only misstep, she manages to steer clear of jazz crossover traps and lets the rhythm of her vocal provide a momentum. The tempo is laidback but her flow ensures it feels focused. Reverb drenched orchestration flits between jazz, 70s funk and soul - opening track Offence has some gorgeous flute and while it wouldn’t be out of place on a Curtis Mayfield track, we’re nowhere near the Blaxploitation pastiche of Ghostface Killa. The album doesn’t stick to one idea, there’s variety across its admirably tight ten tracks, but it always feels like it was written as hip hop, rather than just freestyling over a jam.
This is the kind of album that will unite tastes, and we can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the Mercury Music judges when they realise they don’t have to give this year’s prize to white kids with guitars.