review: Little Simz’ ‘GREY Area’ is 2019’s best rap album yet
In 2015, the then-21-year-old London rapper Little Simz opened her proper debut album A Curious Tale Of Trials + Persons with a call to arms: "Women can be kings." The album established Simz as a force to be reckoned with. She earned comparisons to Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill, and she was co-signed by both of them. The young prolific rapper followed the album with some EPs, singles, her late-2016 concept album Stillness In Wonderland, and a Gorillaz collaboration, and now over two years later she's finally back with her third album GREY Area which fully delivers on the promise made by A Curious Tale. The new album is bolder, louder, more confrontational, more fleshed-out, and stronger from start to finish than anything she's done previously, and it's still music that Simz made fully on her own terms. Just like her previous releases, it's coming out on her own label, and there's no song that sounds like it's aiming for mainstream success. If it is a major breakthrough for her, it'll be because Simz finally made an album so good that the world had no choice but to finally pay her the attention she deserves.
Simz already sounded like a revolutionary who wasn't taking shit from anyone in 2015, and that's even more the case now. Simz works in a callback to "women can be kings" on "Therapy" ("teach my daughter 'bout the wonders of the world I'm convinced / if she's anything like me, I'm raising a king"), but this album's got its own mantra on "Boss." "I'm a boss in a FUCKIN' dress, n**** stay in LIIIIIIINE!" she screams, before martial drums and a distorted bass come stampeding in and Simz proceeds to rap her ass off. Her voice is dripping with venom (even more so than on this album's song "Venom") as she dishes out boast after boast with the kind of precise attack that proves she earns all her bragging rights. The song sounds like a literal battle cry, as dark and bleak as the political climate that causes protest music like this to be written. And, at its core, that's what GREY Area really is: protest music. It sounds like modern-day rap with an undercurrent -- both melodically and thematically -- of the soul music of the civil rights era. Sometimes Simz sounds tired of fighting the same old battles ("They will never wanna admit that I'm the best here, for the mere fact that I've got ovaries," she sighs on "Venom") and other times she sounds mad as hell ("Take a walk in my shoes or any other young black person in this age / All we ever know is pain / All we ever know is rage," she spits at a mile a minute on "Pressure"). GREY Area has just ten songs, but its scope is wide. Simz tackles gender and race discrimination, mental health, death, personal relationships, and her own come-up story, all while deftly navigating an array of music genres without ever veering off course.
The aforementioned "Boss" is the barest, rawest song on GREY AREA. It serves as the album's thesis statement and most immediate song, but it's actually not very indicative of how the rest of the album sounds. Opener "Offence" (which is right before "Boss") starts out with a similar airtight groove of distorted bass and live-sounding drums, but it eventually turns into something much grander, with glitches of psychedelia turning into orchestral soul arrangements which make way for a chanted hook that you could picture Janelle Monae writing ("I said it with my chest and I don't care who I offend!"). Simz compares herself to Picasso, Jay-Z, and Shakespeare on the song, and she rattles those lines off so effortlessly that you'd never accuse her of seeming too egotistic for doing so. While Simz isn't immune to the efficiency of rapping over a looped beat for the entirety of a song, "Offence" is one of a few songs on this album that sees her working expertly with more complex song structure. "Pressure" starts with Simz delivering clear-eyed raps about oppression over weeping, minimal piano, a hazy soul sample, and no rhythm section at all. Drums eventually do come in, and by the end of the song, Little Dragon takes it away with a soaring guest hook. Album closer "Flowers," which is an ode to the members of the 27 club, starts out as atmospheric soul with Simz rapping while the great Michael Kiwanuka croons in the background. Eventually it turns into the kind of real-deal jazz-rap that Noname and Mick Jenkins helped bring back last year, with an abundance of intricate drums and freeform sax solos.
Simz explores other types of music in between. The Cleo Sol-aided "Selfish" is the kind of '90s-style neo-soul jam that has gained Little Simz comparisons to Ms. Hill, and it comes with the album's most singable chorus, a rubbery funk bassline, and a quick reminder that Simz isn't a rookie anymore ("Don't get it twisted, this shit didn't happen overnight"). "Wounds" sees Simz masterfully tackling reggae with help from reggae singer Chronixx, "Venom" sees her rapping over strings cinematic enough to score an Oscar-bait drama, "101 FM" marries a classic boom bap beat to Eastern-tinged melodies and kinda sounds like her very own "Big Pimpin'", and penultimate track "Sherbert Sunset" is where she leans most heavily into the Kendrick Lamar comparisons she's been getting for years. It sounds like a late-album Kendrick ballad, like a "Sing About Me" or a "You Ain't Gotta Lie" or a "FEAR," and Simz pulls it off so well that it's easy to see why Kendrick said she "might be the illest doing it right now." Simz matches the vibe of the song with some of her most sentimental lyrics, taking a break from the radical tone of the record for a pained, introspective look at a breakup. Simz' protest music may often seem larger than life, but she's still human, and "Sherbert Sunset" is about as emotionally honest and human as it gets.
Simz has been saying it herself since her debut came out, and on GREY Area it's overwhelmingly obvious that she can't be pigeonholed. She's not a "UK rapper" or a "grime rapper" or a "female rapper" or even a "political rapper." She cares about systemic injustice just as much as she cares about heartbreak, and she cares about tons of different kinds of music -- just like you probably do. She's had to work harder to avoid being stereotyped than, say, a male rapper from Atlanta. And though that's not fair at all, the hard work pays off immensely on GREY Area, her strongest album yet and 2019's best rap album so far.
GREY Area comes out this Friday (3/1) via Little Simz' own Age 101 label and AWAL Recordings. Until then, you can stream four of its tracks below. Also, catch Simz on tour.