Little Simz: “It’s nice to see my peers win. When they win, I win”

Simbiatu Ajikawo’s fourth album, ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, is a stunning, sprawling, ambitious ode to family – both the one you’re born into, and the one you choose

“Is the okra spicy?” Little Simz asks her seven-year-old nephew, who, along with Simz’s teenage niece, is sitting on the rooftop of Bussey Building overlooking the streets of Peckham in south London. Eating takeaway pounded yam, curried okra and rice, Simz’s nephew shakes his head and says no before exclaiming that the water Simz has just sipped will make the spice worse. “Don’t worry about me,” she retorts playfully, “I’m going to be alright.”

The weather is grey and muggy on this particular Friday. The rooftop is high enough that there’s a wind knocking the takeaway containers askew and the streets are noisy with the shouts of pedestrians as aeroplanes fly constantly above. Despite all of this, Simbiatu Ajikawo – Simbi to family and friends – is in high spirits. “It’s nice having my family around,” she says. “I think they’re jokes; they make me laugh, so it’s cool to have that energy around me.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Simbi is speaking to NME a day after her two-night performance at The O2 alongside Gorillaz, with whom she toured extensively in 2017. “It felt great to be back with everyone,” she says, revealing a toothy smile. “It’s a proper family over there.” In fact, within moments of meeting with Little Simz, it becomes clear that family and community are the foundations on which she builds everything – including her latest album, ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’.

The UK rapper’s fourth studio album is unequivocally her best. Created with trusted peers, including Inflo, the enigmatic producer behind alt-R&B collective SAULT, the album rises and falls as the life of Simbiatu Ajikawo unfurls layer by layer. Simz takes us on a journey musically and lyrically: the album spans Afrobeat, ’80s dance, electronica, jazz, hip-hop, rap, soul and R&B while maintaining her very particular, singular vision; pay attention to the lyrics and it reads like a modern-day epic poem.

The 19-track opus’s cinematic scope is aided by interludes from The Crown’s Emma Corrin, who functions as a narrator, the subconscious voice throughout. ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ is arguably a career-defining project, a timeless album that should vault Simz into not just being a generational talent, but an eternal one.

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Little Simz on the cover of NME

“I want to make it known: I’m an artist, I’m someone that wants to make classic albums,” the 27-year-old Londoner says, twirling a fork around her fingers which are adorned with small, subtle tattoos. When Simz speaks, her words are carefully chosen, a precision found throughout her oeuvre in her razor-sharp lyrics. On ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, her words are exacting because she covers much ground: the tension of her 20s, the murder of a close friend, the stabbing of her cousin, relationship and friendship tumultuousness, the isolation of touring, broken societal systems and, most significantly, her relationship with her father.

Nothing is left hidden on the tellingly acronymed ‘SIMBI’: everything is excavated, archived, processed and exorcised. “It definitely was not easy,” she says while keeping a watchful eye on her nephew. “I struggled with it because it is very personal, like having someone read your diary. But I think I understood that this is bigger than me and I know this has the potential to help someone. Above all, it’s me saying my truth and I think there’s great power in that. There’s great strength in vulnerability, so I persevered and I’m really happy I did.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Work on ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ was preceded by a few extremely successful years for Simz. In 2015, Kendrick Lamar told BBC Radio 1 that “she might be the illest doing it right now” three months before she released her debut studio album, ‘A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons’ which led to an appearance on the Forbes ’30 Under 30’ list, making her the first independent artist to do so. A year later, she released ‘Stillness In Wonderland’, the success of which saw her tour with the likes of Gorillaz and Lauryn Hill. And then, in 2019, came ‘Grey Area’, which NME’s Kyann-Sian Williams called “fiercely confident and unapologetically forthright” in a five-star review. That record won Simz both the Ivor Novello and NME awards, and was nominated for The Mercury Prize.

Simultaneously, she was cast in the latest edition of Top Boy, the Drake-backed edition picked up by streaming giant Netflix. Simz played Shelly, a single mother committed to making a better life for herself and her daughter; a character arc that softened the severity found elsewhere on the show. But, in making ‘Sometimes I May Be Introvert’, Simz wanted to ensure that she pushed to elevate her artistry even further. “After ‘Grey Area’, people were like, ‘What’s she about?’,” she says, “so this album is my opportunity to really show what I’m about which is what I hope I’ve done.”

“I’m someone that wants to make classic albums”

Work on the album started when Simz had the vision for a “cinematic album”. She went to Los Angeles in early 2020 to start recording before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, forcing her to move back to London. In May that year she released ‘Drop 6’, a five-track EP of stripped-back hip-hop. That record was a playground, a means for her to expel her pent-up creative energy. “I parked the album… [I] left it alone for a bit and then I done ‘Drop Six’, she says, adding nonchalantly: “Like, whatever, just in my living room – call it a lockdown project.” After a brief stint in Berlin, she hit the studio again in September to finish what would become ‘Sometimes I May Be Introvert’.

“It was always going to be quite cinematic and of scale,” she explains. “I wanted to make a visual and colourful album that was almost a soundtrack to my life. The orchestration really helps bring that to light, especially the way we use strings and have it float throughout the project and within these interludes, making it feel concise. I think that was a genius decision, to be honest.”

In a bid to create a “timeless” album, Simz listened to greats such as Nina Simone, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday while in the studio back in London. What followed was a perfect union between the earthiness of ‘Stillness In Wonderland’ with the emotional candour of ‘Grey Area’.

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

“I can’t explain everything because it’s just God, bro,” Simz says. “It just happens. We were making these little demos, it was calling for certain things like live orchestration, backing vocals and all these kinds of things and we just followed it. Everyone bought the right intention to the music, which is why it sounds the way it does. Everyone’s intention was pure and just wanted to give the best of the project. This album is definitely a step up from both those projects. I’ve not shied away, but I’ve just tried to elevate.”

The album roll-out, so far, has been nothing short of spectacular: Simz shut down the Natural History Museum in London to film the music video for debut single, ‘Introvert’, self-directed and starred in ‘Woman’. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, a song about her absentee father, garnered an enormous wave of support online as scores of fans saw themselves in her lyrics. “I wanted to get better at articulating my feelings in a more direct and controversial way to make it more relatable,” she explains. “Read my lyrics as a text, you can understand that, but it wasn’t an easy writing process at all because of the subject matter.”

“When you’re constantly surrounded by talent, it’s super important for your growth”

‘Sometimes I May Be Introvert’ finds Simz at the most vulnerable she’s ever been on record (after the lyrics on ‘Grey Area’, this felt unimaginable). This is partly thanks to the hugely influential Inflo, who, despite his anonymity, has worked on several impressive projects released over the last five years, including Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Love & Hate’ in 2016 and Jungle’s ‘For Ever’ in 2018. To understand Simbi and this album is to understand her family – the people she keeps around her, both her biological family members and the ones she’s chosen.

“I had a lot of support,” she says. “Whenever I was second-guessing or had doubts, I could lean on people for advice. It’s really important who you have around you as well, especially whilst making an album.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Simbiatu “Simbi” Ajikawo was born and raised as the youngest child to Nigerian parents in Islington, north London. Growing up near Highbury, she was a supporter of Arsenal football club and attended St. Mary’s Youth Club, where she met Inflo. Simz was naturally drawn to the mic and fell in love with performing – something she still loves to do today: “I’ve never felt like it was something that’s alien or forced. It always felt natural. To me, it’s another way in which I can express myself. I love the art of performing.”

As a teenager, she appeared on TV shows, including the BBC’s kids’ adventure series Spirit Warriors and E4 comedy drama Youngers. She started making music around then, uploading it to SoundCloud and Bandcamp, handing out mixtapes at school. After a brief stint at the University of West London, she decided to pursue music full-time. By 21, she had written, recorded and released four mixtapes, five EPs and that first studio album – all on her own label, Age 101 Music.

“Inflo is my G. Our chemistry is just unmatched”

Since then, Little Simz has become a rapper’s rapper, a crucial component of a flourishing community of young artists – few of whom are women – who have carved a path for themselves in London’s music scene. The likes of Michael Kiwanuka, Cleo Sol, SAULT and Dave have all risen alongside her, showcasing how her peers are just as talented. “It’s amazing,” she says. “It just makes you want to step it up and go harder and be better. When you’re constantly surrounded by talent, it’s super important for your growth. It’s nice to see everyone win because when they win, I win.”

Of Inflo, she says, “That’s my G, bro,” brimming with excitement. “Our chemistry is just unmatched. We really understand each other in the studio. It’s a trust thing as well: when you go into making an album with someone, there has to be a high level of trust because it’s not going to be an easy ride. He trusts my ear and I trust his; we push each other. We’re also both fearless where there is no boundary or no limit of what we can try in the studio. There’s just the freedom to create and if it works, sick, but I think having the space to try new things is what I love most about working with ‘Flo.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

He and Simz have known each other “since I was my nephew’s age and then our families knew each other”, she says, adding: “He’s just been in my life but there was a period where we didn’t work at all.” From when she put out her first and second albums, Simz and Inflo didn’t collaborate much though they knew the other was there. It was after the Gorillaz tour that Simz hit him up to work together again. She wanted to go back to the sound they were trying to create between 2008 and 2009, when they first started working together where “all the music he was sending me then sounds like my album now – obviously, this is a more evolved version”.

Inflo’s secrecy and anonymity is well-documented. “I just think some people don’t like to be in the eye,” Simz says. “Some people just want to make their art in quiet and don’t want interviews or shoots, and that’s cool. Music means something different for everyone, so you just have to respect it. He still gives you [the chance] to hear his art and his name rings in that he’s been part of amazing projects.”

One project Inflo’s name has been firmly attached to has SAULT, the similarly anonymous British band whose latest project, ‘NINE’, Little Simz appeared on. She’s coy to say anything further, though: “That’s not for me to talk on,” she says. “They’re obviously very anonymous.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Flecks of jazzy, SAULT-influenced instrumentals are woven into the fabric of ‘Sometimes I May Be An Introvert’. “I knew I had to step it up,” she says. “Everyone was stepping up to me and across the board from ‘Flo to the engineers to the band – everyone. I just felt like I need to give more because this is my name [and] a lot of it was just me getting my thoughts and feelings out. This is how I feel about a particular subject, so I’m gonna say everything I want to say.”

It was initially very tough for Simz to write about her biological family. Raised by a single mother, she has felt angry with her dad for walking out; it’s anger she’s carried within herself all her life, and it took until this album for her to work through those emotions. She rhymes on the buoyant ‘I Love You, I Hate You’: “You made a promise to God to be there for your kids / You made a promise to give them a life you didn’t live / My ego won’t fully allow me to say that I miss you / A woman who hasn’t confronted all her daddy issues.”

“I’m trying to push myself while having a great network. It’s a recipe for greatness”

“At first, I was fighting it because I didn’t want to give my dad the stage, but the more I [thought], it’s not about him,” she says firmly. “It’s about me and my feelings about it. I’m just approaching it from a more emotionally mature angle. Had I written this song two or three years ago, my approach would not have been the same. I’m probably in a good space in my life to talk about this. And if we ever talk, I’m in a good space to hear him out.”

On ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, she states: “The day would come when you gotta find all the answers to your sins / Pressures of providing feeling unhappy within / Or what kind of external family shit up on your plate / But I understand wanting needing an escape.”

“Yeah, that’s about thinking I’m understanding, ‘You could have had your own childhood traumas’,” she explains today. “We grew up very different. You look at my life and think, ‘You are very privileged’, [while] you grew up in Nigeria. So, it was trying to approach it from a place of more understanding and compassion, but also I’m still hurt. I’m not gonna shy away from that fact.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

Simz’s storytelling is certainly elevated on ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, epitomised by the way that, on ‘Little Q PT 2’, she adopts the mentality of a cousin who was stabbed and fell into a coma. She raps, piercingly: “I had dreams of many things as youngen / I was 14 when the streets offered tough loving / Older brother went jail daddy weren’t around / No choice but to now be the man of the house.”

“I wrote that song about my cousins from his perspective of what had happened in his life,” she explains. “I thought his story was important and thought it should be heart. There’s so many young Black boys in London that have his story, and thank God, my cousin didn’t lose his life, but, unfortunately, not everyone’s lucky. When these young people lose their lives, it affects that family and friends. But the world goes on and they become another number, another statistic and nobody cares. I just felt that there should be more awareness on it and I just wanted to tell his story.”

Despite Simz rapping with such clarity on the broken systems she sees around her, ‘Sometimes I May Be Introvert’ is an album rooted in joy; positivity radiates from both the lyrics and production. After a choppy few years – coupled with the constant touring, press and personal turbulence – Simz allowed herself to be happy on this record. “It’s nice to talk about some of the joys of my life as well,” she says. “Sometimes, as an artist, you feel like you need to draw from traumatic things in order to produce good art. I don’t think that should always be the case. It’s nice to draw from a place of happiness, or joy or excitement, and still be able to make something good.”

NME Cover 2021 Little Simz
Credit: Eva Pentel for NME

The takeaway containers are packed and Simz shares a secret handshake with her nephew as they make their way down to the photo shoot. The release of ‘Sometimes I May Be An Introvert’ feels like the closing of the last chapter of the first volume in the storied life of Simbiatu Ajikawo. On ‘How Did You Get Here’, she sings, “How the hell did I get here? / Sometimes I sit and I wonder / I’m the version of me I always imagined when I was younger.”

The flipside of being a ‘rapper’s rapper’ is that Simz has sometimes been described as underrated, a backhanded compliment she’s dismissive of today. “I’ve forgotten about that, to be honest,” she says. “I think we created something really special and that’s all I want to continue to have: more great moments and more great music. At the core of it, I just want to continue to make art. I keep trying to push myself and better myself while having a great network or support. It’s a recipe for greatness and, with this album, I think I’ve unlocked something in my brain.”

Little Simz’s ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ is out now.

CREDITS

Styling by Luci Ellis
Hair by Chantelle Fuller
Makeup by Nibras