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Little Simz arrives to meet me outside a King’s Cross brasserie sporting enormous headphones and a mustard yellow hoodie advertising her own album. The title of the imminent release is on the back: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, which is both grammatically suspect and doesn’t bode particularly well for a candid interview. On the front is a spiral of text that ends in a tight curve reading: “The top of the mountain is nothing without the climb. Only the strong will survive.” They’re lines from the album’s opening song, Introvert, spoken not by her but by Princess Diana.
Or actor Emma Corrin, to be precise, doing the plummy voice they used when portraying young Lady Diana Spencer in the most recent series of the Netflix drama The Crown. Corrin appears several times on the album, offering words of encouragement such as: “Your mind is the most powerful tool. Never look back. Destiny awaits,” but Simz, real name Simbiatu Ajikawo, won’t be drawn on what they’re supposed to represent. “I’ve just left it up to the listener to determine what they feel like she is. I don’t want to give everything away. It’s nice to let people interpret it how they want to and personalise it,” she says.
To me, Corrin sounds like the angel on Simz’s shoulder, urging her to be bolder and reach higher in a career that has already touched greatness and is now due for popular recognition. GREY Area, her third album, mixed rock guitar, slick soul and horror film strings and was one of the best releases of 2019, losing out to Dave’s Psychodrama for that year’s Mercury Prize but winning an Ivor Novello and an NME Award for Best Album. The 27-year-old from Islington is also gaining traction as an actress, appearing in dramas on CBBC and E4 as a teenager and more recently acting in Netflix’s gritty Top Boy, for which she has just finished filming a new series. She has rapped with Michael Kiwanuka, Alt-J and Sault and the night before we meet she was on stage at the O2 Arena as a guest performer with Gorillaz.
Though the fourth album’s title might suggest a shrinking violet, she’s given it everything, revealing more about herself than ever on songs about family relationships and her feelings about fame, struggling with the balance between “Simz the artist or Simbi the person/To you smiling but really hurting.” Musically it’s immense, constructed mostly in collaboration with Sault’s and Kiwanuka’s producer Inflo and piling on orchestral strings, choirs and a rich band sound that recalls the classic soul of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. She also does tense electronic grime on Rolling Stone and visits her Nigerian roots on the skeletal groove of Point and Kill. But when Introvert begins with military drums, a sighing choir and thundering horns, it sounds like nothing less than a Hollywood blockbuster.
“This album has really allowed me to explore my creativity. I’ve been into so many spaces, so many textures and genres,” she says. “I was listening to Motown stuff but also real rap – Nineties New York hip hop, which is what I grew up with. When we were working with the orchestra I was thinking, ‘Does this move me? Does it make me feel like I’m in Disney World?’ and it did. It took my breath away.”
When she started thinking about next steps, pre-lockdown, she was in a voluntary lockdown of her own, having finished the lengthy GREY Area tour badly in need of solitude. “As a touring artist you never have an opportunity just to be stationary. I needed to be by myself, because I enjoy my own company. So that’s what I was thinking about going into the next record: how does a person like me exist in a space like this, where you’re always expected to be ‘on’?”
The conflict is best illustrated on Standing Ovation, where she outlines her achievements with towering confidence but simultaneously wonders why she needs to. “I think I need a standing ovation/Over 10 years in the game, I been patient,” she raps, but also: “Why the desperate need to be remembered?/Everybody knowing what you’ve done, how far you’ve come/I’m guilty, it’s a little self-centred.”
I ask about her ego. How good does she really think she is? “I think I’m amazing. Honestly, respectfully, I think I’m very very talented. I know I am. But I also wanted to pose the question: why is legacy important? I want to be a legend, but sometimes I don’t know why. There are all these people on the ground doing real work: the teachers, the healers, the preachers. So why do we admire the people in the public eye so much?”
She’s also struggling with the need to tell the truth in her songs, versus the knowledge that, since the success of GREY Area, more people than ever will be listening, and as we’ve established, she likes her privacy. The bravest moment comes on I Love You, I Hate You, which is about her absent father. You can hear her wrestling with what she should say and how she should say it while the song progresses. “My ego won’t fully allow me to say that I miss you/A woman who hasn’t confronted all her daddy issues,” she raps. She’s brutal, asking: “Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?” but another line says: “Even though I’m angry don’t wanna be disrespectful.”
“I know so many people are going to hear it, but it’s not enough to keep me from saying it, because it’s my truth,” she explains. “I know the power of music and what it can do. I have to remember that sometimes it’s bigger than me. Sometimes I’m being used as a vessel to try to tell something. As much as it’s a release for me or some kind of healing, it can also do something for other people.”
Making the song has helped her, she thinks, though there’s still a long way to go with that particular relationship. “I reached out recently, we talked and it was chill. I think I was in a space to hear him, which I wouldn’t have been a year or two years ago. Walking around holding all of these feelings towards this person was taking up too much space, so I’m glad I put them on a record. But we don’t really know each other, so, yeah… it’s a weird one.”
There’s much more to unpack across 19 tracks, including a second difficult relationship, with her eldest sister, on Miss Understood, a vivid depiction of her early days in How Did You Get Here, the tale of a cousin who was put in a coma after being stabbed on Little Q Pt 2, and a rare love song: I See You. Simz is ready for the music to get a lot of attention, as it should. It’s a fantastic achievement. But she also thinks, despite that introversion, that she’s better able to cope with so many eyes on her this time around.
“I don’t know what’s coming, but I’m prepping myself, and I want to be present every step of the way,” she says. It sounds like Simz the artist and Simbi the person are going to get equal amounts of her attention now. “I’ve put my career first for a very long time and I’m not in a space to do that any more. My career is very important to me, but it’s not my life. I’m doing things differently this time.”
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is released on Sep 3 on Age 101. Little Simz plays the All Points East festival in Victoria Park, E3 on Aug 28 (allpointseastfestival.com) and O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 on Dec 16 (o2academybrixton.co.uk)