Fifteen short months after her critically acclaimed smash hit Sometimes I Might Be Introvert topped countless year-end lists, UK rapper Little Simz continues her hot streak with a holiday-season surprise drop – and while it might be a sacrilegious position to take online, dare I say, it might be even better than Introvert. Simz injects some more personality and fire into her vocals, while the beats hit a lot harder, bringing an old-school bump to the lingering orchestral stylings of her previous effort. Despite most of those beats simply looping through some lengthy tracks, Simz brings a degree of engagement in her mic presence and flows only matched by the JID album earlier this year to keep it miles away from being boring. There are only ten songs on the tracklist, but half of them extend past the 5-minute mark, leaving plenty of room for Simz to spin a variety of densely-packed verses, offering both poignant takes on social issues and impressive wordplay. It’s another late-breaking list contender for 2022.
Little Simz is regarded most as a conscious hip-hop truth teller, but she genuinely has more in her technical toolkit than almost any rapper in the game as well. Her internal rhyme schemes throughout the album’s opening verse are on another level, dropping 3 great verses over a soulful vocal loop and a boom-bap loop on “Angel.” At the same time, she manages to lace in fun pop cultural references – a great one finds her comparing herself to Meghan Markle – and social commentary about modern-day slavery and musings on how to shatter the system. With a smooth and soulful chorus from frequent collaborator Cleo Sol asking for a guardian angel, it’s a strong opening. “Gorilla” goes even harder, periodically dropping a brief but invigorating blaring brass riff to break up an effortlessly cool bassline sampled from Jurassic 5. What Introvert may have lacked in personality for this reviewer shows up in spades on this one, Simz sounding like demolishing this beat is a breeze for her while having fun switching up pronunciations and finding creative ways to drop a series of flexes. It’s an endlessly replayable banger. As she says on the next track, “Silhouette”: “When the drums speak to me, I just breathe through it. Cool with a little flair, how does she do it?” The song itself is a little more subdued as Simz toasts to her faith for bringing her through tough situations, but it’s one of the producer Inflo’s more impressive moments as he crafts a complex and dramatic jazz-club jam session live instrumental that accentuates all of Simz’s little inflections and flow patterns.
A title track in a way, the song “No Merci” essentially kicks off an 11-minute verbal barrage against systemic racism that continues onto the following track “X.” “No Merci” zeroes in more towards the artistic side of things and the structure of the music industry, as Simz speaks about the constant struggle to make it and keep her spot when the whole world has been against her, coming up with deeply entrenched ways to keep her down and exploiting her traumas in competing art forms. “If the contract more than two pages, it’s a bad sign” is a simple bit of great wordplay. Simz warns that she’s coming to take the throne back, and she starts putting on her armour and heading to the battlefield by the time the rattling war drums kick off “X.” Jumping into it with a wild, breathless flow, Simz marches through the trenches with a no-nonsense attitude over a more fired-up and menacing instrumental, asking listeners not to become numb to all of the injustice. With another passionate gospel hook attached as well, the chilling piano and string swell that creeps into the background when she starts talking about Biblical levels of destruction is enough to raise goosebumps. Trumpets are added to the mix near the end to send the troops to battle.
Simz continues to offer bars about having to work twice as hard on “Heart on Fire” with another great line: “We was trying to hustle whatever was 10, just for a fiver.” Speaking about her rise to fame, the big string arrangements on this one represent Simz finally entering that world of the lavish, all the while realizing that it isn’t built for her. With one of the strongest choruses, the gospel choir returns with some soulful runs as they sing about having to walk through the fire. It all leads up to “Broken,” the longest track here and the one where Simz gets the most vulnerable and confessional. Opening with the question “What does it mean to be broken?”, Simz takes that concept and runs with it through four verses and seven minutes while addressing all kinds of different problems, from substance abuse, to insecurities, to generational trauma and systemic issues. She appropriately sounds broken and exasperated on the track, like she’s getting tired of fighting, but she eventually contrasts all of the doom and gloom with some truly inspiring and uplifting messages for her listeners. Telling us to choose love every day and reminding us that we’re worthy, the strings behind are enough to get this listener emotional.
Though there are a couple tracks near the end that might prevent this from being a perfect album, things still finish out strong. The mix on the track “Sideways” is a little jarring, with a loudly-mixed pitched-up sample snapping listeners out of the moodiness of the last track and reappearing periodically throughout. Still, Simz’s bars are as great as ever on one of the shortest tracks on the project. “Who Even Cares” finds her trying to go for something different, but it doesn’t really work out for her. Getting melodic over a psychedelic, Thundercat-style beat, her vocals are oddly filtered. The mix is far from overwhelming, but she still feels buried in it – it seems like she’s not the greatest singer and they’re trying to mask it as much as they can. “Control” brings things back with an emotional piano riff and an intimate performance from Simz speaking right into your ear as she ends on a positive note. Celebrating some of the good things in her life and thanking her partner for his support, things fade out with some sparkling 90s R&B energy in the instrumental.
With the last review of the year, Simz ends things on a high note. Now with a trilogy of critically acclaimed albums dating back to 2019’s GREY Area, she has rapidly established herself as one of hip-hop’s most essential figures and a must-listen whenever she drops, to hear her thoughts on the state of the world just as much as her spellbinding abilities.
Favourite Tracks: Gorilla, Broken, X, Angel, Heart on Fire
Least Favourite Track: Who Even Cares