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British rappers that carve out a niche beyond these shores are few and far between, and they rarely have the legs to go the distance. That should change with the release of Little Simz’ third album GREY Area, as it is a tour-de-force of newly bristling self-confidence, intense self-reflection and nasty, scuzzy bass lines.
Though raised in the grime scene of the UK, Simz has always been at least one step removed from the musical backdrop of her homeland and has enjoyed unprecedented attention from the most illustrious of her US counterparts. Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar namechecked her during a BBC Radio 1 interview, proclaiming that she "might be the illest doing it right now," and the grand dame of tardiness, Lauryn Hill, asked her to open for her during a tour.
With such illustrious co-signs, it is fitting that this album finds her accepting the challenge and producing the most convincing work of her career thus far. This is, in part, due to her collaboration with childhood friend and producer Inflo, who creates a fresh and original sound from classic touchstones of hip-hop production. That in combination with Little Simz’ confident, intelligent flow conjures up a concoction that thrills and inspires in equal measure.
Opener “Offence” is half a click from Blaxploitation territory, with its ebullient, pounding drums, scuzzy bass line and cinematic strings. But it is all rendered with a fresh twist that manages to avoid pastiche and hits the sweet spot between inspiration and individuality. And then there are Simz’ bars: “I’m Jay Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days.” Serving not only to out-brag the very best in the rap game but also install hip-hop itself as greater than other, more “accepted” cultural forms, it is a hell of a line delivered with more than a little insouciance.
A ferocious, righteous confidence burns incandescent too on “Boss,” with lyrics shouted through a loud hailer from a distance to enhance the feeling of a militaristic level of lyrical desolation over a rumbling, tumbling groove: “Unapologetically I be bossin’ it, getting better with age / Got it back, never lost it, my legacy remains / Rejected the dotted line but not the pen / Invested in myself, that was money well spent.” The cherry on the cake here is the squelchily satisfying keys work at the denouement of the track.
That self-assuredness burns bright at various points throughout the album but there is plenty of time for a shift in tone and greater introspection. An old school beat combines with airy piano and guest vocalist Cleo Sol’s dreamy stylings on the ode to self-care that is “Selfish.” Meanwhile relationship issues pop up on the delightfully chorused “Sherbet Sunset,” where more squelchy funk combines with a low-key melody as Simz raps: “I wonder what I did for me, I hardly remember me / What a waste of chemistry, energy and empathy / Wonder when you plan to tell me about her pregnancy / You have no integrity, emotion or respect for me.”
Every which way you turn, the quality radiates form every pore. There are the Bernard Herrman-esque strings on the dense, claustrophobic “Venom” allied to Simz’ vocal dexterity and the eastern-tinged reminiscence of “101 FM” where she revels in giving props to her heroes of rap: Dizzee Rascal, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris and Kano.
It feels vaguely ludicrous to pick a highlight on an album so vibrant and vital but the final one, featuring Michael Kiwanuka’s dulcet tones, may be the right one to choose. “Flowers” is about the fabled “27 club” of artists cut short in their prime and features not just a rich, soulful beat but also layer upon layer of vocal beauty and a solitary trumpeter sounding a mournful refrain.
At 10 tracks and 35 minutes long, it also follows Phonte’s No News Is Good News and others in the growing feeling that less is more and defiantly leaves the listener wanting more. Simz’ vocals flow effortlessly, cutting swathes through the luxurious production and fluctuating according to the subject matter of the rhyme. From prowling braggadocio to reflective vulnerability, she convinces with all facets of the lyrical journey within the 10 songs.
This is the sound of an artist achieving her potential and finding a firm foothold in the excellence of her craft. Little Simz deserves every plaudit and prize coming her way, and if there’s any justice, they will arrive by the barrel load.
Notable Tracks: "Boss" | “Flowers” | "Offence" | “Venom”