The North Londoner is already a hugely acclaimed artist, actor, fashion icon and more – but with her amazing new album, she's about to transcend even her own sky-high standards
Little Simz is a lot taller than you might expect. Statuesque, and exuding an aura of quiet serenity, the 27-year-old proves a photographer’s dream today, malleable enough to take direction and yet secure enough in her own skin that she needs no instruction to bring out the best in each pose. Turning that magnetism on and off as required, she saunters around the small east London studio to the strains of Jay-Z, an oasis of calm amidst an array of ramshackle props and artfully mismatched furniture.
From the outside looking in, Simz’s life can seem a strange tangle of contradictions. With co-signs from Kendrick, André 3000 and Lauryn Hill, the north London rapper is unquestionably one of the most respected players in UK hip hop, and yet is still operating way outside the skyscraping budgets of the major labels. She’s a successful actor with two major limited series to her name, and yet is anonymous and approachable enough for a passer-by today to stop her in the street and ask if she’s single. She’s deemed so important by the fashion industry that Gucci send a tailor across town to fit her forthcoming TV appearance on Later… with Jools Holland, but is down to earth enough to conduct said fitting in the middle of the studio’s foyer, surrounded by random detritus.
Back in grey sweats and a black Nike puffer after wrapping up the shoot, Simz hugs her hair and make-up team goodbye, and checks in with her driver to make sure he’s managed to eat a proper lunch. A banana and bottle of water in hand for hers, she strolls up the road for our interview.
“It’s mad, mad, mad,” she says of her schedule, stretching out across the tiny, two-seater sofa in L&Q HQ. There’s an entire afternoon and evening of Zoom calls stretching out ahead of her to plan the US launch of her fourth album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, promo for which is set to take up much of the year. Somewhere amongst all this, Simz will find time to continue filming The Power, the Amazon adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s bestselling sci-fi novel in which she stars alongside Leslie Mann and John Leguizamo.
It’s all a far cry from her roots. Born Simbiatu Ajikawo – known as Simbi to her friends – she grew up in nearby Highbury, the youngest of four siblings raised by a single mother. A regular at St. Mary’s Youth Club in Islington, she got into acting at a young age, winning roles in CBBC series Spirit Warriors and, later, E4’s Youngers. It was money earned from the former that first enabled her to invest in a budget mic and start honing her skills as an MC.
Hip hop was a constant throughout Simz’s childhood. Drawn to rap via her interest in street dance and the record collection of her older brother, she remembers obsessing over the story-led approach of stars like Nas, Kanye, Lauryn Hill and The Notorious B.I.G., as well as the low key grooves of Mos Def and Slum Village. Encouraged by close friends Josh Arcé, Chuck20, and Tilla – with whom she formed the rap collective Space Age – she put out her first mixtape at 15. She went on to share a further three tapes plus five EPs before the release of her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, in October 2015.
Today Simz lays the credit for her staggering drive squarely at her upbringing. “It was me looking at the environment around me and being like, no way this is it. Like, this can’t be it; I know there’s more out there. And obviously my mum’s raised me as a single parent, so just seeing how hard she works and how all-out she goes for her family, I think that’s just trickled down to me. I just want to work hard and do my best. Because growing up where I grew up, you don’t just get things given to you: you have to really go and work for it.
“I think I had those teachings from early. And seeing people in my area die, get murdered, go to jail, all this stuff… I’m not a gang member or anything – I was never that person – but I knew people like that. Growing up in that area I’d seen how easy it is to get sucked in and feel like, well, there’s nothing else to do, so I might as well just do that. Yeah, I had a rude awakening.”
It’s an experience she explores on ‘Little Q Part 2’ from Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Over breezy beats and Jackson 5-inspired harmonies, Simz spits about life on the streets and the wider ramifications on boys and young men in lines like, “PTSD from the roads / Trouble was everywhere that I looked,” and, “You’re dealt the same cards from the system you’re enslaved in, it’s fucking mayhem.” The song is entirely based on the experiences of her cousin.
“He’s three years younger than me,” she explains. “We grew up together but he lived in south London and I lived north, and there was a time where we stopped talking. But then we regained contact and we just started having some deep heart-to-hearts. There was a big chunk of his life that I missed out on, and he was filling me in on this story and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what? You almost died?’ He was stabbed in the chest. He was in a coma. My mind was just blown.
“Obviously, it’s his story and it’s unique, but these types of things happen every day, to young Black boys especially. And thank God he’s still got his life because if he had lost his life he’d just have been a statistic; another Black boy that lost his life in London, and who never got to tell their story. So I think as much as my album is about me, it’s also an opportunity for me to shed light on other people’s stories and give them that platform.”
In a year where it feels like systemic racism and structural inequality is finally being more widely scrutinised, Simz’s decision to tell this story now feels particularly prescient. However, she’s reluctant to be drawn too deeply on how inspired S.I.M.B.I. was by the wider political context, which included the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and subsequent protests staged by the Black Lives Matter movement. As she puts it on lead single ‘Introvert’, “I study humans that makes me an anthropologist / I’m not into politics.”
“When all of that stuff was going on I wasn’t really on social media,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I needed to take a step back, because I’m someone that feels things very intensely. I take on a lot and when everyone is trauma-bonding and coming with all their pain and hurt into one area, it’s just a bit overwhelming for me. And I just needed to take time to work out how I actually feel, because not all Black people feel the same, or think the same.”
This atmosphere of turmoil is palpable on the aforementioned ‘Introvert’. Finding Simz grappling with her personal and professional responsibilities, it’s a treatise on personal identity as much as it is a clarion call decrying societal injustice. “Simz the artist, or Simbi the person?” she sighs, confiding, “If I don’t take this winner’s flight that’s career suicide / Though I should’ve been a friend when your grandma died.”
Balancing career commitments with her responsibilities to family and friends is something Simz has always struggled with, but never more so than after the arrival of Grey Area. Released in early 2019, her third album proved a breakthrough moment, finding acclaim far beyond the rap community, and winning Simz a Mercury Prize nomination as well as an Ivor Novello award for Best Album. Combine this with the fact she was simultaneously promoting series three of Top Boy – the Netflix drama in which she plays single mum Shelley, acting opposite Kano, Ashley Walters and Dave – Simz found herself being pulled in several directions at once.
“There’s definitely been moments of feeling like I’ve not had my priorities in check,” she nods. “Because I’m so ambitious and driven, and have never taken my eye off the prize, it’s caused me to miss out on certain moments. But I’ve learned what are the really important things to me. It’s like, when I miss a birthday party because of work, in five years I won’t even remember what the job was but I will remember I missed that birthday. So it’s just about paying attention to those things and trying to be present. So now, as hard as I’m working, I’m just working a lot smarter.”
As for whether Simz saw Grey Area as a breakthrough, well, the jury’s still out. Speaking to the Hip Hop Saved My Life podcast back in 2019, she described it as “the album everyone had been waiting for me to make.” Though hugely proud of the record still, today she’s less celebratory about it.
“I think it made people say, ‘Oh she’s arrived.’ But I still think people are like, ‘Yeah, it’s cool but can she do it again?’ Not that I felt pressure with [S.I.M.B.I.], but I knew it was gonna be like, ‘Was Grey Area a fluke? Did she just get lucky with that one?’ So as much as it did feel like a breakthrough, it kind of didn’t. I still felt like I needed to prove myself, you know? And at the time it was probably [about proving myself] to other people, but I think in making this album it’s been about proving that to myself.”
There’s no question that S.I.M.B.I. represents another giant leap forward. Begun pre-lockdown in L.A. and finished between September and December of 2020 – at the same time as filming series 4 of Top Boy – it was recorded with her childhood friend Inflo, who also produced Grey Area as well as both of last year’s acclaimed SAULT records. Stylistically, it finds Simz operating on another plane entirely, delivering some of the most impactful bars of her career and a dazzling array of different musical styles.
Backed by a 40-piece orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road, ‘Introvert’ emulates the epicness of Jay-Z-classic The Black Album, while second single ‘Woman’ draws on the warmth of ’70s soul. There’s the cosmic, ’80s funk feel of ‘Protect My Energy’ – influenced by Nigerian singer Steve Monite – and the Afrobeat-inspired Obongjayar collaboration ‘Point and Kill’. ‘Rollin Stone’ finds Simz spitting blistering, grime-inspired bars, before the song climaxes in a haze of pitch-shifted vocals and woozy trap beats. Meanwhile ‘Two Worlds Apart’ repurposes the refrain from ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy’ by Smokey Robinson, which – impressively – is the record’s only sample.
“That was the goal,” Simz says of the record’s vast variety. “It was about trying to make it exist everywhere. Like, you might walk into a restaurant in Nigeria and hear ‘Point and Kill’, and then you might be in Sweden at some low key disco and hear ‘Protect My Energy’. And that’s probably inspired by my live shows. I’ll look out into the audience and see kids on my left that are no older than 18 going crazy and moshing, and then I look to my right and I see a couple that are definitely in their 60s. I love that different generations can co-exist at my shows and enjoy this music, and I want to continue to cater to that. And also I enjoy different types of music.
“I probably won’t make another album like this again and that’s cool, because I can’t do the same thing twice and expect different results. So I’m just tryna push the envelope as much as possible. I want to keep proving to myself that I’m not confined to this box of rap/hip hop/urban whatever. There are different sides to me and I’m just exploring them.”
This idea of self-discovery bleeds into the lyrics, which – as the title implies – finds Simz squaring her successes with her status as an introvert. It’s a theme she addressed on ‘Therapy’ from Grey Area, but on S.I.M.B.I. she drills much deeper, frequently providing further exposition via spoken world interludes voiced by Emma Corrin, who plays Princess Diana in The Crown.
At the end of ‘Introvert’, Corrin consoles in cut-glass tones, explaining, “Your introversion led you here / Intuition protected you along the way / Feelings allowed you to be well balanced / And perspective gave you foresight.” By ‘The Rapper That Came To Tea’ that supportiveness has been flipped on its head, with Corrin condescendingly sneering, “The extroverts like to be entertained and I was told you don’t talk much.” As Simz explains, it was the success of Grey Area that forced her to confront her introversion.
“I’ve always been a quiet kid and then all of a sudden it was all red carpets and people saying, ‘Congratulations’ on this, and, ‘Let’s go out to drinks’. And it was a lot. Because you’re in the public eye or in front of the camera, you’re expected to have this extroverted persona, but actually that’s not me in my day-to-day life. So I just wanted to turn inwards a lot more and speak about things that would probably put me in a more vulnerable space.”
Certainly, S.I.M.B.I. features two of her most candid songs yet. ‘I See You’ finds her confessing her insecurities to – and professing her affection for – an unnamed lover, with lines like, “Whisper in my ear and tell me you won’t leave.” Simz refuses to be drawn on the inspiration for the song today, responding to enquiries about her love life with an elusive, “I value mystery.”
On ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, she’s more transparent, tackling her strained relationship with her father over a Ray Charles-inspired vocal riff sung by Inflo. “My ego won’t fully allow me to say that I miss you / A woman who hasn’t confronted all her daddy issues,” she confesses at one point, her hurt later turning to anger in the accusation, “Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?”
By contrast, the self-directed video for ‘Woman’ finds Simz saluting loyalty, with cameos from her inner circle, a cast of day ones that extends from supermodel Jourdan Dunn and musician Denai Moore to Simz’s best friend from primary school and two of her cousins. As she explains, the video concept further reinforces the positive messaging of the song, which was written with the intention of encouraging women to uplift one another rather than behave like rivals.
“There’s this misconception that there can only be one woman at the top: one doing great, one excelling. It’s like, why don’t we just start here and change the narrative? Because we definitely don’t have to wait for other people to green-light it. There’s more than enough space for everyone to exist within their own space. Everyone’s doing their thing and that’s great – we should be celebrating that.”
I wonder if Simz’s introversion ever results in her being underestimated. “Yeah,” she smiles. “But I love it. It just gives me more fire in my belly, to be honest. Just because I’m introverted, it doesn’t mean I can’t express myself. Just because I’m quiet it doesn’t mean I’m not confident, or am unsure of myself. I’m very confident and I know myself, but I’m just not always the loudest in the room. When it comes to doing what I love, I go all out for it.”
It’s a sentiment backed up by her recent tweet: “No more slept on talk, no more underrated talk, pls & thank you.” When asked about it today, Simz rolls her eyes. “It’s just a bit played out,” she sighs. “It’s like, if you like it then how is it underrated? If you rate it then it’s rated, right? Don’t be like follow, follow – change the narrative.” And yet there is a sense that Simz has been undervalued up until now, and that S.I.M.B.I. could be the record to change all that for good. Does she feel like she’s levelled up?
“Yeah. But that’s the only way it was gonna go. Especially after Grey Area. Leaving that where we left it, it was only gonna go this way. I knew people were gonna be all over it in terms of dissecting and critiquing everything, so I was like I’m not gonna give anyone reason to deny this. I was just really set on pushing my pen and taking my writing to another level, and just outdoing myself.”
She shrugs. “I’m just really trying to make great, classic albums. Records that I’m going to want to play to my grandkids, alongside Nina Simone and John Coltrane and Michael Jackson. And as long as I’m fit and healthy and my mind is in a good space and I’m inspired that’s what I wanna continue to do.
“I know I’m special and I’m powerful. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way; but it’s just my truth. I know I have a lot to contribute and to offer and I’m not naive enough to think that this is all my doing. I believe in a higher power and that I’m being used as a vessel, so I’m just allowing the powers that be to guide me. And then in the same breath, to be rooted in family and friends. Because those things are just as important to me as music, if not more so.”
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