Much has been made of the fact that Little Simz is still painfully underrated in an industry where less talented artists are given a bigger platform. After all, Kendrick Lamar doesn’t just label anyone as “the illest doing it right now,” and further praise from the likes of Lauryn Hill and Gorillaz should have propelled Simbi to the very top of the charts early on in her career.
Instead, the London-based artist has existed in a grey area of sorts, winning acclaim from critics without securing the mainstream success to match. It’s no secret that female rappers have to work harder than their male counterparts to be taken seriously, and it’s likely that this systemic misogyny has played at least some kind of role in Simz’ career up to this point. That could all change with GREY Area, an album which showcases her talent like never before.
Little Simz once told us that she hasn’t “been vulnerable enough” in her music, and while plenty of fans might disagree, it’s clear that the young star has something to prove on her latest record. Much like Janelle Monáe, she has eschewed the concept narrative of her previous releases for album number three, and just like the Electric Lady, she too has also come into her own with deeply personal songs that provide more insight than any of her releases thus far.
Whether she’s opening up about a breakup on “Sherbert Sunset” or asking listeners to take a walk in the shoes of any “young black person” on “Pressure,” Simz isn’t afraid to turn inwards and imbue her lyrics with the kind of honesty that’s still all too rare in mainstream rap. Across just ten songs, she tackles everything from gender and inequality to death and mental health, spanning jazz, soul and even some punk vibes along the way. Among all of this, Little Simz has never sounded so immediate, and part of that is down to the assist from her childhood friend Inflo, who wraps her spit-fire flow in his eclectic production style.
Despite the range of styles and topics explored throughout, GREY Area is still remarkably cohesive, and that’s largely down to Simz herself, who expertly veers between touching intimacy and searing bravado without ever losing sight of the album’s overall tone. Full of savage one-liners, “Offence” is easily one of the best things that Simbi’s ever recorded, proving that she is indeed up there with “JAY-Z on a bad day” and “Shakespeare” on her worst day. “Boss” maintains this swagger through distorted vocals and an addictive bass hook that’s reminiscent of underground ’90s hip-hop á la Check Your Head-era Beastie Boys. It’s tempting to argue that “Venom” is another standout track thanks to the song’s cinematic strings and fierce lines like: “They will never wanna admit that I’m the best here, for the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries.”
In reality though, the same case can be made for almost every song on the album. “Selfish” luxuriates in old-school soul vibes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lauryn Hill record, while “Wounds” slips into a reggae mood with surprising authenticity thanks to guest vocals from Chronixx, and Simz effortlessly rides a gorgeous Eastern-style flow on “101 FM.” Picking a favorite is no small task.
Few rap records released in the past year demand your attention so consistently and in your first few listens, it’s easy to forget that the skip button exists entirely. However, once you’ve become more familiar with GREY Area, it’s likely that most listeners will be tempted to jump ahead to the album closer, “Flowers.” Along with melancholic vocals from Michael Kiwanuka, Simz ruminates on the lives of fallen idols like Amy Winehouse here, reflecting on what kind of legacy she too wants to leave in her wake.
It’s a smart move to end the album in this way, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Simbi’s intelligence has always defined her life on record and here, she expands her repertoire even further, proving herself to be a musician in every sense of the word by also playing her own instruments too.
In a recent tweet, Little Simz reflected on her latest work, stating that it’s the “Same me, new level.” Whether or not this new album propels her to the level of success that she deserves, it’s fascinating to see the young star embrace this grey area on the cusp of stardom with such strength and confidence. Bold and fierce, yet also soft and vulnerable, Little Simz has always resisted being pigeon-holed in any one category, but if we were to classify her somehow, we’d argue she’s still the illest doing it right now. It’s about time that the rest of the world recognized her as such too.