Two verses into ‘Pressure’ on her third album GREY Area, Simbi Ajikawo plainly shrugs that she’s “far from where I wanna be in this life, it’s nothin’ I can’t be in this life.” She almost says these lines in passing, but they’re a perfect summation of a record about the muddled strife of one’s mid-twenties – a period where you figure out who you are, and that certain things can’t be defined in black and white.
Across the LP’s 35 minutes, Little Simz details her life as a musician and twenty-something, covering the duality of being at once self-confident in her ability to create and succeed, while also being vulnerable to factors outside of her control such as heartbreak, loss, and the outside pressures that the world can throw at you. Her experience sounds uneasy, but the way she captures it on record is anything but.
Simz’s talents have long been undeniable. Early mixtapes gained buzz on both sides of the Atlantic and the approval of notable figures in hip-hop such as Kendrick Lamar. On tracks like ‘Dead Body’ from her first record, the Londoner showcased dazzling technical skills to suggest she was a star in the making. She has maintained her independence on an intriguing series of subsequent projects, yet on occasion she has fallen into a trap of being too eager to prove herself – rapping hard at the expense of a compelling narrative. It was unnecessary; her talent is evident to any half-conscious listener.
Happily, the concise and fulfilling GREY Area largely contains no such issues.
Through an impeccably produced soundscape of live instrumentation, Simz explores the themes that have prevailed in this period of her life.
One of those is the societal scorn poured on female rappers in a still male-dominated music industry. The way Simz dismisses misogynist detractors throughout (“they would never wanna admit I’m the best here from the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries” on ‘Venom’; killer pay-off “I’m a boss in a fucking dress” on ‘Boss’) is glorious. The opening three-song salvo is a wonderfully self-assured display of defiance. Bass growls, guitars crunch and strings swirl around Simz while she calmly tells us that despite what you throw at her, she’s unfazed.
It’s on three tracks towards the end of the album however where cracks begin to show, and where GREY Area is most fulfilling. On ‘Pressure’, ‘Sherbet Sunset’ and closer ‘Flowers’, Simz’s self-confidence is still evident but here it’s accompanied by a matter-of-fact vulnerability as she discusses her brushes with external challenges – the pressure of self-actualisation, romantic strife, and mortality.
‘Sherbet Sunset’ is a particular highlight. Given Simz’s hard exterior, it’s surprisingly moving to hear her lay bare an experience of relationship betrayal. Spitting lines with her deadpan flow, she’s angry but most of all she’s just hurt, crushingly ending the first verse with “I’m a sensitive soul and I’ll stress it / What happens when someone takes advantage of that? / Lost part of myself, and I can’t get her back.” It’s moving stuff that also perfectly sets up the Michael Kiwanuka-backed finale “Flowers”, a soulful rumination on whether the greatness she craves is tainted with doom. It’s a powerful end to a record that proves beyond doubt that she is getting stronger with each release.
It’s not flawless; the record dips in quality a little in the middle with middling fare like the nostalgia trip ‘101 FM’ and more hard rapping on ‘Venom’. And taken as a whole, GREY Area isn’t a revolutionary record in terms of sound or structure. But the honesty, poise and soul-baring shown by a still growing artist make Little Simz’s third album a rewarding listen: moving at its best and always very self-assured.
Words by Tom Burrows.