The male stars (read: practically all the stars) of rap music have not done much to encourage women’s equality. How’s that for an understatement? That’s why the world needs Simbi Ajikawo, or Little Simz, to be a voice and image of intelligence, strength, and grace in a scene that many listeners expect and want to be thuggish. This 23-year-old Londoner doesn’t care what the norms are – she just wants to speak her mind.
The industry big boys wouldn’t be interested, she assumed, so she started her own label, called Age: 101 Music. The opening of her 2013 EP, Blank Canvas, is a good introduction to her early style: rapid-fire rap over laid-back synth sounds and digital drumbeats. In “Yesterday’s Painting,” she’s ready to move into the next phase of her life – “This is me embarking on a new journey” – while a soulful, unidentified male voice sings Lennon-McCartney’s “Yesterday” to a new melody:
2014 brought the EP E.D.G.E., really a full album with 13 tracks. “Enter the Void” is its best song, about a guy named Jimmy who grew up with no opportunities, and now he’s 40 and lost. “His people are now gone, they’re either dead or in jail.”
Simz shows her gift for making insightful statements in unexpected rhythms. Here’s a sentence that holds a lot of meaning, but seems conventional and conversational on the written page: “Sh** was all good in our young days, but it’s changed now ʼcause we’ve grown.” She forces it into an artificial pattern– two short syllables, two longs, two shorts, two longs, etc. — that emphasizes the words and puts them in uncomfortable syncopation with the backing track. Don’t get used to that pattern, though. You won’t hear it again.
Live drums mix with atmospheric synthesizer to give her a canvas to lay her textures of rhythm on as thick as Van Gogh piled on paint.
Simz doesn’t have a beautiful voice, but her poems, and her delivery of them, are sometimes so smooth that they make you think you’re listening to R&B. In fact, her first full album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, hit number 20 on the UK R&B charts. That’s on her own tiny indie label, mind you. She is not messing around.
But an indie rap star isn’t a comfortable concept to “serious” rap fans. To quote one well-meaning You Tube commenter, apparently new to Simz’s sound, “Needs to sell out, hopefully someone signs her soul she sick.” In other words, this fan thinks she needs a big recording contract. Simz doesn’t seem to feel the need to get her soul signed, though; it’s doing just fine on its own.
Her soul, or at least her own character’s development, is often the topic of her rhymes. In “The Lights,” she’s talking to a friend – maybe the one in the mirror – with lines like “How d’you find yourself without losing you?” I’m riveted by the layers of jagged percussion, the long string moans, and the voice, none of which agree on where the downbeat is:
“Tainted” has an easier beat, after a spoken intro that makes you think you’re at a poetry reading. That’s something that sets Simz apart from other rappers: she has an introspective, articulate style that emphasizes her rhymes as poetry. But she also has the pithiness needed for rap, little digs at herself or at society that go by in two seconds if you don’t concentrate, like this admission: “You can keep your love. It’s the money I been reaching for.”
Back on Blank Canvas, she had said the line, “But money ain’t the pursuit.” So it’s not surprising to find a later song called “Fallen.” It’s about ending and parting. She lets the natural spoken pitches of the first line, “All good things gotta come to an end some time,” form a melody. She’s actually singing this, not just rapping, and you’re reminded of her close relationship with R&B:
While A Curious Tale seems to focus on Simz’s memories of growing up, her latest album, Stillness in Wonderland, deals with her grown-up, professional reality. She’s Alice, of course. The music industry is Wonderland. That theme pops up in almost every song.
Peppered throughout the 15 tracks are several “Cheshire’s Interludes.” Over short, psychedelic-influenced instrumentals, a man’s voice warns Alice to be careful (warnings she obviously didn’t heed, or she wouldn’t still be in the business). Click here for an example.
Other tracks are more obliquely related to the Alice theme, such as “Doorways + Trust Issues.” The musical setting is lush, like the optimistic point of view at the beginning, but that touch of happiness gets interrupted. “What happened when I followed the white rabbit?” she asks. She willingly went through the doorway, but her trust issues are keeping her from moving through the strange world she’s found on the other side.
Despite (or maybe because of) her remarkable success, Simz is already showing signs of being jaded. The last track on the new album is “No More Wonderland,” which she described in an interview with NPR as her reaction to being “cemented in this [music] industry. I’ve had enough of being in this wonderland, and it’s not what I thought it would be.”
Something tells me that, like Alice, she’ll find her way out of the rabbit hole. But she’ll take her rhymes with her.