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A standing ovation for Little Simz

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was easily one of the best albums of the year, and saw Simbi Ajikawo stepping into her light. Read our print interview with Little Simz from summer 2021.

29 Dec

Rosaline Shahnavaz

When the horns sound, you know that Little Simz means business. 

If you’ve heard the grandeur of ‘Introvert’ and absorbed the cinematic visuals of the video, filmed within the walls of the Natural History Museum, there can be no doubt that this is an artist in their most commanding phase to date. True musical legacy is a journey, and the north London rapper has never been afraid to put on her hiking boots.

The last time I spoke with Simbi Ajikawo, almost a full calendar year ago, things looked a little different. We were both still on Zoom, both sat in our respective living-room loungewear, but Simz was keeping secrets, dancing around the growing existence of her fourth record to focus instead on Drop 6, an EP that perfectly captured the pent-up frustration of lockdown. Rich with knowing immediacy (“this is for the now”), it was an intentional moment of creative pause from the album sessions, but one that offered the listener a solid premonition of what was to come.

Drop 6 was kind of the seed, and it grew into Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” the 27-year-old says today, reflecting on her newest project. “It’s a long record to get through. Even coming off the back of Grey Area, which was so short and concise, it’s super scary to put 19 songs on a record in the hopes that people actually sit through and listen. Did you make it through all of it?” I confirm that of course I did, that I loved it, and she cracks into a smile. “Sick!”

The calibre of Simz’s work could easily mean that she has no business being quite so unassuming, but then her approach has always been thus; self-assurance without slamming others, focus without fuss. From her earliest SoundCloud mixtapes to the mainstream crossover appeal of 2019’s Grey Area (which was nominated for the Mercury Prize), she has always been about getting her head down and delivering, only imbibing the energy that feels right. Simz will be the first person to tell you that she never stops, but 2020 gave her the kind of clarity that only enforced downtime can offer. The time finally seemed right to address a theme that she had been pondering for a while: the nature of being a high-profile musician when fame was never something you sought.

“I’ve just never felt like I need to be the loudest person in the room. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions – I just made an album that’s 19 tracks long. I have a lot to say, y’know? But I would rather channel that through my art”

“I think I found it more so in 2019, when I was, like, everywhere – just travelling everywhere, performing everywhere, going to all these events and whatnot,” she says. “Just feeling like… I know what I’m like, innit? I keep myself to myself, and sometimes when I enter these spaces, I feel like maybe people would expect me to be loud because they’d see me on stage. I think I spent a lot of my life feeling like, I know I’m introverted, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to speak up for myself or I’m not confident, or I’m lacking some…”

Ambition?

Yeah, exactly. That’s not the case. I’ve just never felt like I need to be the loudest person in the room. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions – I just made an album that’s 19 tracks long. I have a lot to say, y’know? But I would rather channel that through my art. I just thought this is something that I deal with, and hopefully people can relate. And if not, there’s just a bunch of bangers on there.”

She’s not joking about those bangers. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert delivers hooks and bars in ruthless quantity, retro-infused R&B ducking and weaving its way around Afrobeats and huge hip-hop riffs. With her ability to  summon choirs of gratitude on ‘How Did You Get Here’ or chalk up ‘Protect My Energy’ as a gleeful mission statement, both intent and grandeur are crystal clear on the album, removing any sense of limit. As with all Simz projects, no genre was an experimental bridge too far: “It didn’t make the album, but I did try something that was me on some emo shit. It was cool, y’know. It sounded hard!”

The swag is most definitely real (“N****s think they coming for my spot/ Don’t you know you’re dealing with a boss?”), but so is the soul, balancing observations on politics and racial relations with welcome moments of joy. On sun-drenched single ‘Woman’, the category is very much carefree, brushing off the male gaze.

“I’ve only had those examples of Black women in my family working hard when it wasn’t handed to them, and I guess that has some sort of knock-on effect”

“Knowing that I can own my femininity in so many different ways and feel totally comfortable in it – it’s lit,” says Simz. “I love being a woman, and so I just wanted to talk about that from a personal standpoint, but also recognise other women and just be like, ‘Yo, I see you, and I’m here if ever you need me.’ Especially within music and within the industry, there’s always this thing of ‘Ah, there can only be one at a time’, but there’s space for all of us to exist.”

‘Woman’ also marks Simz’s first music video as director, extending her natural multi-hyphenate tendencies. “There was a lot of self-doubt in that, mad anxiety and just feeling like, ‘Shit, if this doesn’t come out good, all fingers point this way.’ I probably had one banana the whole 16-hour shoot, couldn’t sit still, but then my friends came through to be in it. Sometimes when you’re on an all-women set there can be this cattiness, but everyone was just going around complimenting each other – ‘you look beautiful’, ‘love your hair’, ‘love this colour on you’. It was just so nice to be around that energy, everyone just really showing love to each other.”

Family, chosen or otherwise, is highly important to Simz. Whether it’s the opportunity to collaborate again with Cleo Sol (“I love how devoted she is to anything she’s a part of”) or the endless appreciation she has for her mum (“Put my mum on the cover of GQ / You can’t relate cos that’s something that Gs do”), the love of her community fuels the album, even when it takes her pen to some raw places. On ‘Little Q’, she reconnects with a cousin who’s been rebuilding his life after suffering a near-fatal stabbing, while ‘Woman’ features a touching voice note from another frustrated cousin, chiding from a place of love: “It just reminds me to call you, but you never pick up the phone!!!”

“A lot of the best love songs come from a place of heartbreak, but I want to practise writing from healthy spaces, pulling from a place of joy”

Success has naturally made it harder for Simz to be fully present in her home life, but SIMBI also speaks of older absences, faced head-on. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ finds her asking: “A woman who hasn’t confronted all her daddy issues […] Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?”

“I literally made up every excuse to not write it,” she says of the track. “I was like the beat’s shit, the pace is wrong… I just didn’t want to confront it. Not necessarily because I was scared to talk about it, but I just didn’t want to give man a stage, you know? I didn’t want to give him anything, basically. But writing the song, it started to occur to me, it isn’t even about him. It’s about me. I’m freeing myself and letting go. I was just sick of walking around with this weight of being angry at someone that I don’t even know like that.”

The pandemic provided necessary headspace for Simz, not least allowing her to reground herself in her Islington community, where she grew up. “Even in moments where I just didn’t want to chat to anyone, whether it was my brother turning up with a food package at my door or my mum pulling up, everyone was just super there for each other. It just made me appreciate what I have even more, especially in a time where so many are losing people. Going forward, I want to protect that and show up. Whether my career is doing what it’s doing or not, I’m still gonna be an active friend and an active daughter and an active sister and auntie, because I care to be all of those things.”

You’d be a fool to suggest that Simz can’t have everything she wants. A new season of Top Boy was wrapped up around the same time as the album, while filming is ongoing for a new Amazon series, The Power. Sometimes she’s laying down hard lyrical truths, sometimes she’s showing her talents on TV; either way her attention to detail is meticulous. There’s all manner of breadcrumbs laid out for the listener to find, but she doesn’t spell things out. I confess my embarrassment at not realising earlier that the first letter of each word in the album title spells out her name (SIMBI) and she laughs; it was always there for those who cared to find it. Speaking about the role of the album’s interlude narrator, Emma Corrin (The Crown’s Princess Diana), Simz is similarly vague, wanting the listener to find their own answers.

“Whether my career is doing what it’s doing or not, I’m still gonna be an active friend and an active daughter and an active sister and auntie, because I care to be all of those things”

“If you listen to it and you feel like, ‘Shit, this sounds like my therapist or my subconscious’, it’s totally up to you. It’s nice to leave things a bit coded. But working with Emma was great. I didn’t know if she was going to be into it, but she came down one afternoon and knocked it out and it was sick. It’s giving Disney energy, but spiritual – so many things in one.”

Simz is capable of both gassing herself up and showing love to others, and SIMBI finds an artist who has taken the time to really get to know herself, reaping the rewards of deep reflection. It’s a record at least partly indebted to stability – ‘I See You’ is a certifiable love song, and while we don’t wish to probe into this introvert’s privacy, she does confirm that she wants to continue writing from a happy place: “Just feeling supported, compassionate, being open and honest, things I perhaps haven’t felt before. A lot of the best love songs come from a place of heartbreak, but I want to practise writing from healthy spaces, pulling from a place of joy.”

Ten years on from her first mixtape, Little Simz is thinking about her growth and the path she still wishes to tread. I ask her about ‘Gems’, a moment that sees her pondering one of the record’s most imperative sentiments: “I’m trying to live up to the expectations/ Putting everything I can into what I create… I know I’ve got a lot to learn”. A relentless hard worker, there’s no denying Little Simz deserves every inch of her majesty. But how much of this desire comes from Simbi the person and how much is the societal pressure of ‘Black excellence’ that so many of us live under?

“That is a really interesting question,” she says. “And I guess the true answer would be that I have no idea. This is all I’ve ever known. I’ve only had those examples of Black women in my family working hard when it wasn’t handed to them, and I guess that has some sort of knock-on effect. I want to give that some serious thought actually, and it probably requires me to really dig.”

“I understand there’s a way in which people expect you to move or behave or do things, but I’m always just gonna bring me into whatever space I enter”

Such personal excavation might well be fuel for another record, but as Simz knows, the important questions are often the ones without obvious answers. Until then, she’s committed to continuing her lane of quiet confidence, knowing that the greatest power lies in being yourself. 

“I understand there’s a way in which people expect you to move or behave or do things, but I’m always just gonna bring me into whatever space I enter,” she says. “Knowing the way my album sounds, I don’t think there’s anything to compare it to in this musical time. I just want to be present in it all, within my music career, but also my personal being. Really let these moments live, and have something great to look back on so I can say, ‘Well, in my lifetime, I popped a madness.’ You know what I’m saying?” 

Introverted or not, it’s an ethos we can all get behind. Let those horns begin.

Photography: Rosaline Shahnavaz assisted by Maria Monfort Plana

Styling: Natalie Roar

Hair: Chantelle Fuller

MUA: Nibras

Special thanks to Hackney Empire.

This article is featured in gal-dem‘s 2021 print magazine, The Roaring Twenties. Find out more here!