Photography by Liam Hart
“People are dying, why the fuck am I making hits?” Little Simz asks on her new album, Grey Area. A true Pisces, Simz is notoriously reserved but equally inquisitive. Only 25, she carries herself with uncanny confidence – not the bravado of youth so much as the grace of someone with four or five decades to lean on – someone who understands how sometimes less can be more. Seated comfortably on her throne of self-will, she is courage, she is grace, and she is not to be messed with. What she says, and, more specifically, how she says it, comes across as hyper-literate, self-aware, and cerebral. She often pauses before responding to questions so she can carefully weigh her answers, confirming the verity of her statements internally before sharing them with the outside world.
Simz writes powerful, relatable lyrics in the same careful, deliberate way, and her process continues to carry her towards mainstream success. She captivated audiences with her machine-gun flow on her debut mixtape, 2010’s Stratosphere. She holds that attention still, and her efforts led to collaborations with Kehlani and Stormzy, along with a surfeit of other famous voices. Simz’s music has now reached every corner of the earth, although not without costs.
A maelstrom of challenges – shady label offers, authority clash, shit-talking haters – have maligned Little Simz’ path to success. All of this led the singer to establish herself within the rap world on her own unique terms. From her childhood in London to her years of early sonic experimentation across the globe,
Simz used her experience to create music that shows her maneuvering through shadows, displaying an artist both intoxicated and frustrated with the music industry. Simz faithfully clings to her intuition, remains creatively uncompromising, and redefines the meaning of ownership over art.
Simz’s style exists in stark contrast from many of her peers across all genders. She focuses on very specific stories, writes post-traditionalist raps with complex rhyme schemes, and rarely uses an 808 — this combination that often lands her under the unfortunate “real hip-hop” umbrella. “To this day, I still see people commenting that I’m our generation’s Lauryn Hill, or that I’m the conscious version of different female rappers who don’t make the type of music that I make,” she says, laughing.
Born Simbiatu Ajikawo in North London to a family of Nigerian immigrants, Little Simz is the youngest of four. Growing up, Simz’s family exposed her to a plethora of sounds and formed the foundation of her taste. “I was hearing a lot of different music and genres in the house, whether that was afrobeats, reggae, or rap. My dad introduced me to Nas and Biggie and Jay-Z very early on, while my elder sister loved Erykah Badu and Angie Stone, and my middle sister was really into grime and garage,” she remembers. This variety developed her own inclinations, “I think it helped me in my growth, my understanding of music and even how I make music now: it’s not genre-specific, it’s quite broad.”
Simz explains that she considered music more of a hobby than a future career until she turned 13. Subconsciously, though, she prepared to evolve into Little Simz the artist. In her spare time, she devoured albums like The MisEducation of Lauryn Hill and looked up to Missy Elliot, whose catchy, future-facing music dominated the airwaves during her high school years. Like many inner-city children in their youth, Simz wrote verses and delivered them to eager audiences on a local level at first. She honed her craft at St. Mary’s Youth Club: a community centre that counts the likes of Leona Lewis as alumni.
Over the following decade, Simz released four mixtapes, seven EPs and two albums to critical acclaim. She assisted one of her major role models, Lauryn Hill, on tour, and embarked on her own tours around the world. She landed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list at just 21, though her age matters little – she’s the first independent UK rapper to make the list at all. Her ever-expanding list of co-signs is replete with musical heavyweights: Kendrick Lamar, Gorillaz, Mos Def, and Andre 3000, among others. On her 2015 album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, Simz’s multiple personas blur the lines between her personal truths and the perspectives of ‘persons.’ Her second album, Stillness in Wonderland, Simz tells her coming of age story with a flair for fantasy; weaving her narrative reality into a whimsical dream-like tapestry.
A little over two years later, she’s releasing Grey Area; a third chapter, one focused on honesty. If A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons established Simz as a gifted writer capable of constructing complex rhymes, nuanced stories, and hints of humor, Grey Area doubles down on that promise. “I felt like I was growing at a fast pace. I felt pain, I felt inertia, all of that,” she says of the past few years. Grey Area’s scope is wider, both lyrically and sonically, but Simz still spits her truths with hints of the sarcasm and brazenness for which she’s known. Yet, on Grey Area, one also hears more of Simbiatu—the, needs, and desires of the woman behind the persona are clearly and confidently delivered.
In 2018, Simz booked a ticket to L.A. While there, she met up with her childhood friend, British producer Inflo, who previously worked with the likes of The Kooks, Michael Kiwanuka, and Tom Odell. The pair spent days in the studio together working on Grey Area. The two engaged in deep conversations – at times uncomfortable ones – for days on end. The experience forced her to dig even deeper—and the result is Simz at her most introspective. “I think it’s just natural growth and progression. I’m not really talking about the same things I was talking about when I was 21, I’m at a different place in my life, I’m in a different mental place,” she explains. “For me, it was more so just really tapping into different areas that I feel haven’t yet been explored, and even if they have, it was like, ‘How can I peel back more layers and talk about it in different ways that people haven’t heard me talk about before?’”
On Grey Area, Simz widens the horizons of her content: she notches up her use of instrumentation, which includes her voice. “Inflo (who produced this album) said to me, ‘If you were a guitarist, I would be sitting down with you for a week going through guitar chords. Your voice is basically your instrument, so let’s tap into it as much as we can,’” she recalls. With the help of her producer, Simz embraced live instrumentation and elements from different genres in the album.
“Collaborating with a variety of different artists like Little Dragon, Cleo Soul and Chronixx opened my mind up a lot,” she admits. “It’s cool that I’ve had the blessing of having them on my records - it’s sick that they added their magic. It’s just enough to please everyone’s appetite.”
“There’s no rule that says you can’t grow and try new things, but I think it boils down to the intention. I’m not picking up a guitar because I think it’s a good look; I’m doing it because I, myself, have a desire to learn to play an instrument on a proficient level. That’s the intention behind it.”
This kind of self-determination forms a central theme to Grey Area: Simz made the album over a tumultuous period in which she struggled with questions she couldn’t find simple answers to, “I was at a time of my life where nothing was really making sense in terms of my views on things and people and the world. It was all a bit of a mess in my head.” A nod to the title’s project, Simz tells me that Grey Area pulls the listener through “a confusing state where nothing was black and white, it was all a shade of grey.”
“It’s like I’m going through adolescence again, finding more out about myself and discussing more, and having growing pains and losing people and all these types of things and so I guess like, I still don’t really understand it and so it just felt like I was in a big grey area and everything was more complex.
Yet, her confidence is ever-present on the album – bars like “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days” on “Offense” leave no room for doubt. Delivered in a self-assured tone, the line is one of the many resonant mantras found in her catalogue that capture her natural charisma. But Simz also perfected a blend of confessional-based stylings of ministry with something more ethereal and visceral. Hidden somewhere in every song is a clever turn of phrase or a quixotic melody – a message to be decoded and learned like scripture.
The album presents an uninhibited portrait of her evolution into adulthood. From delineating the ebbs and flows of romantic relationships to contemplating the shifts in personal growth, she crafts a tentative blueprint of the highs and pitfalls of navigating one’s twenties. On “Therapy,” the artist dives deeper into these themes than ever: “I don’t even know why I’m investing the time coming to therapy, there’s nothing you can tell me that will help me / I do not believe that you got it all figured out.”
Soft-spoken but a keen observer, she projects an aura of uncommon reserve. But if she is quiet in person, it’s because she’s able to say so much through her music, to convey the world around her in a few simple, hard-hitting lines.
“When it comes to creating music, that’s my chance to open up and be expressive. I write as a form of therapy and some things I feel like I need to get off my chest and talk about. That’s me also pushing myself. Some people don’t want to improve; some people don’t like to be pushed. But I do. If I’m happy to stay at the same level and make another album like Stillness in Wonderland, I could have done that in no time. But that’s not growth to me, that’s not evolution. With this refreshed mindset, I was able to make some of the music I’m most proud of - I think this is my best work yet.”
The record comfortably flexes its jagged, angry edges, but ultimately settles in a resolutely vulnerable place. I ask Simz how, as an artist who craves privacy, she draws a balance between being honest and transparent with listeners, “I do want to maintain a level of privacy in my life. But at the same time, I still want to be as relatable as possible, because I’m aware that I’m not the only one who has dealt with the things I’m talking about,” she says. “Everybody goes through the same things most of the time, and so it’s important for me to connect with people through my music so that they can feel like they can relate and not feel so alone”.
Simz is a storyteller; her music proves this. From her track “Sherbet Sunset,” which details her disappointment with a past lover, through to her modern lullabies about the London streets, she’s able to communicate infinite relatable situations.
Simz’ storytelling is just accomplished when exploring the narratives of others; the album’s closing song, “Flowers,” for example, grapples with the premature deaths of some incredibly talented artists — namely Jimi Hendrix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse — and the impact of fame on these individuals’ ultimate fates. “The song touches on the greats that unfortunately left us too soon. They died at the age of 27, so me being 25, I’m like, ‘Shit, 27 is around the corner!’” she admits. “I’m not saying that that’s gonna be me, but it gets a bit real. I don’t know if I should even be feeling this way because I’m young and still have a long way to go, but it’s just something that crosses my mind; I can’t help it”. While others her age struggle with quarter-life crises, Simz’s situation as a well-known artist under the spotlight adds an extra degree of urgency to these questions.
“Enlighten me/ How to stay sane in a world so mental?” she asks on “Flowers.” I ask if she has found any answers to that question.
“I’m not someone who lives a rockstar life. I’m also not someone that is up all night in the studio; I like to go in the morning and be done by six and have my evening to myself. I try to live a semi-normal life to keep my sanity. I like to spend time with people who keep me grounded and level-headed. And I’ve had my fair share of being overworked, so I like to take breaks. I’m making those things more of a priority in order for me to keep doing what I’m doing, and not burn myself out too quickly.”
While the paparazzi may not breathe down her neck as they did with the stars mentioned on “Flowers,” Simz still belongs to a generation of real-time surveillance on social media. “I’ve had periods where I’ve thought ‘Shit, am I addicted to this kind of thing?’” she confesses. “But the minute I clock it, I withdraw. The whole time I was making this album, I wasn’t on Instagram, I wasn’t on social media, I completely removed myself because I didn’t want to consume so much information about other people’s lives and be distracted by all these things - I wanted to focus on what I was doing. I’ve always had that relationship with social media where I refuse to be a slave to it.”
She explores the theme on “Sherbet Sunset”: “I can’t do relationships for Instagram / Hoes are like, ‘My life is perfect’ / Really it’s the opposite”. She balances the specific struggles of our generation and the larger issues in the world with the messy minutiae of her own life. “Pressure,” awash with piano chords, makes the listener feel like they are watching themselves from above. Simz contemplates death and injustice: “I’m tired too, but I don’t lose, I refuse / Take a walk in my shoes, already another young Black person in this age / All we ever know is pain, all we ever know is rage”
As a 25-year-old woman myself, Simz and I bond over our disbelief at the current state of the world. Her approach on “Wounds,” which features Jamaican newcomer Chronixx, draws on classic hip-hop, reggae, and soulful melodies to deliver politically-charged messages; she tackles everything from coercive policing in black neighbourhoods to the grim reality of life in the hood. “Take a chance or roll the dice, but you know how the story ends tonight/ He won’t make it back to ends tonight,” Simz spits. “He was looking at his killer in the eyes.” The lyrics and accompanying instrumentals crystallize both her pragmatism and her unique ability to turn poignant vignettes into universal narratives.
When I ask her how it feels to be a Black woman in 2019, Simz responds with the same hopeful perseverance that she sprinkles throughout the album: “It’s a tricky one. I feel like it’s a good time, but not the best time. There’s definitely a wave coming through, there’s better representation in the media and movies like Black Panther have made strides in that direction. It’s nice to see that many Black female faces on the screen and in one movie,” she says. “But I think we still have a long way to go”.
Grey Area is a latent awakening, and there’s something especially appealing about Simz’s candor. “The music is definitely very autobiographical, but there’s also a bit of me playing around because I’m finally able to dance around with the idea of being vulnerable in that way,” she says. “There’s this misconception where people feel like I’m trying to be a rebel or do this in an unorthodox sort of way... and it’s not that. I’m not desperate for anything. I’ve just got a real hunger.”