Finally throwing off the narrative cloak of her last two albums (both, in part, concept albums), GREY Area by Little Simz is a stripped back masterpiece and a demonstration of her unmatched artistry as a rapper. It touches on subjects as diverse as gun violence and therapy, with incredible honesty and maturity.
This album has definitely been a long time coming. Rapping from aged nine, briefly acting in teen TV dramas, then gaining a premiere of her debut mixtape on Jay-Z’s website at 19, it’s fair to say that Ajikawo, the brains behind Little Simz, has been prolific. But despite props from the likes of rap-royalty Kendrick Lamar and a collaboration with Gorillaz, the household name status she has rapped about throughout her career has eluded her, whilst her male contemporaries on the London scene seemed to pass her by.
One of the album’s greatest achievements is the way it presents such a broad variety of themes and moods whilst still maintaining its coherence and holding the listener’s attention throughout. No song feels out of place, ranging from emotional rap-ballads such as ‘Pressure’, through chilled vibey tracks such as ‘Sherbet Sunset’, all the way through to triumphant and defiant opener ‘Offence’.
The album as a whole matches the artwork perfectly. No longer hiding behind abstract artwork, GREY Area sees Simz face up to the camera in plain and simple, yet defiant, terms. Accordingly, the album’s instrumentation is stripped back compared to previous efforts. Real drums and bass guitars take the place of digital or sampled beats and bass, whilst it’s the guitars and vocals that provide the hooks. Though less heavy on the sampling, this gives the album a feel of 90s east-coast hip-hop. Much of the credit for this has to go to her longtime friend and producer Inflo.
The lyrics too are almost painfully raw at times, with the opening line in ‘Sherbet Sunset’ being: “It’s hard to talk about something that I don’t believe in, L-O-V-E can you tell me what’s the meaning”. This all makes for an incredible live experience (which I’ve been lucky enough to witness twice), which sees Simz take to the stage with an incredibly tight and talented live band, even playing bass and guitar herself at times. This album, and its accompanying tour, are truly a tour-de-force for Ajikawo.
It remains to be seen whether this 2019 genre-blending gem will propel Little Simz to the heights she deserves to be at. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that had she been a man, her fortunes might be different. Indeed, despite lacking some of the maturity of GREY Area, her 2017 effort Stillness In Wonderland is still an epic of an album, that would surely have put her on everyone’s lips had it come from one of her male counterparts in British rap.
This hasn’t been lost on Little Simz, who doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue of gender. The incredible aggression on standout track ‘Venom’ is directed at the men who have stood in her way. She’s spoken before about her disdain at being labelled a ‘female MC’ first, and ‘artist’ second, but for the first time she really owns that subject in GREY Area, singing “I’m a boss in a fucking dress” on aptly named track ‘Boss’.
Little Simz’s development over the last decade has been clear to see, releasing four mixtapes, seven EPs and three albums that span a journey of growth and experimentation. The result, which will surely become a touchstone of modern hip-hop, is GREY Area – truly a culmination of all her efforts of the last decade. At the incredibly young age of 25, with 3 albums all independently released under her belt, here’s hoping that the next decade is hers as it deserves to be.