“I’m Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days,” Little Simz raps on ‘Offence’, the opener of her third album ‘GREY Area’. It’s a killer line and one of many assertions spat out by the 25-year-old London artist across her most astonishing record to date.
‘GREY Area’ hears Simbi Ajikawo at the peak of her powers. She narrates vividly the complexities of mid-twenties adulthood atop a kinetic bedrock of whipsmart beats, bloated basslines and riffs that scuff the edges of funk. “I’m Picasso with the pen,” she blurts elsewhere on ‘Offence’. That natural poetic talent wasn’t amiss on previous records ‘A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons’ and ‘Stillness in Wonderland’ but on ‘GREY Area’ Simz’s strokes are bolder and sharper. They’re more expressive, too; the record pairing meatier hooks with freeflowing diary entries. Take ‘Therapy’, a brooding hip-hop ditty where Simz imagines herself sitting a counsellor’s couch. The seemingly exponential growth in contemporary conversation about seeking therapy is upturned. Simz is certain “There’s nothin’ you can tell me that will help me”.
Mental health is just one topic that cements ‘GREY Area’ as a profoundly modern-day record. The album is preoccupied by the macro troubles of the world but is refracted through the micro lens of one young Londoner. On ‘Boss’ Simz sticks two fingers up at gender constructs (“I’m a boss in a f**king dress”) while ‘Offence’ hears her redress the balance of a male-dominated music industry. ‘101 FM’ serves the current wave for late ‘90s/early ‘00s nostalgia with 8-Bit pentatonic synths and memories of “Playing PS2/Crash Bandicoot/Mortal Kombat” after musing on race and imprisonment (“Just another black boy in the system doing time in bin”).
Knife crime comes into focus on ‘Wounds’ with Simz referencing her friend who was stabbed to death this year in Shepherd’s Bush (“But we all know how the story ends tonight/He won’t make it back to ends tonight”). ‘Pressure’ details the West’s infatuation with state intervention (“I don’t wanna see no violent troops / Puttin’ out fires that haven’t even been started”) while louche, lounge jam ‘Selfish’ promotes self-care (“My best friend is I”).
‘GREY Area’ invites you to sit in the front seat with a woman navigating life’s twists and turns. Simz might not have everything figured out just yet but that’s OK; ‘GREY Area’ is a triumph in articulating the journey.
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Watch performances from the shortlisted artists on BBC Four at 10pm on 23rd September.
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