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Little Simz: the hip-hop star ‘cut with a different scissor’

The British artist lit new fires under British rap with her fourth album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert and its stripped-down successor, No Thank You. Now, she’s drawing strength from her creative family to explore new chapters in print and on-screen

This story is taken from the autumn 2023 issue of Dazed. Pre-order a copy here.

Sometimes, greatness needn’t be defined by metrics you have no control over. It’s also about succumbing to the belief that who you are today is as permanent as a handprint on a cold window. The life of an artist can be like this – a cycle of rebirth, a snake eating itself. Little Simz has no idea who she’ll be tomorrow, next month or ten years from now. What’s assured is her exploration of self through art, and this, probably the most beautiful element of being an artist, is emblematic of the ouroboros.

“I guess more people know who I am now,” says Simz with a wry laugh, commenting on life since the release of Grey Area in 2019. “Not much has changed really; I’m still doing what I’ve always done. Making my art and putting it out into the world and hoping it resonates with people.”

The first time we spoke, just before the release of that record, Simz described being content with where she was in her career. The frustration that came with not being where she felt she should have been was a feeling she was no longer concerned with. Back then, she’d yet to win a Brit award and the Mercury prize, publish a book or advance her acting career with a role in the third series of Netflix gangland drama Top Boy. Four years on, you can hear the resolve and quiet confidence in her voice; a flame has been rekindled in recent years.

Grey Area was my breakthrough, but Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was a real turning point,” says Simz of her Mercury-winning fourth album, a Top 5 hit in the UK that cracked Rolling Stones’ greatest hip-hop albums list last year. “The concept, visual wise, subject matter, and just where I was at in life. I think I came into myself more but it’s also consistency.” She has just arrived back from her tour in Australia, her first visit in a few years, and there is some lag still in the air. “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was definitely more expansive and conceptual. [I was] making music that I felt was need- ed and music I enjoyed; I wanted to make bops and I’m in my bag right now.”

“Getting older plays a part in my music maturing. Getting older, having new experiences, making new mistakes. Never the same mistakes: always new ones, because I’m human” – Little Simz

For its follow-up, last year’s No Thank You, “I wanted it to be super-conversational,” says Simz, “and to give people an insight as to where I am and what I’m experiencing.” That insight into where she is creatively (“Charged up, fully barred up, I’m unleashing”) can be felt viscerally in the music video for “Gorilla”, directed by Dave Meyers and taken from the album. The bag she’s in is gargantuan; Simz is talking her shit on the track; it’s just straight raps. Sometimes, that is a concept that’s enough in itself, especially for someone who has moved beyond artistic frustration.

Look even deeper into the video, you can see Simz acknowledging the various versions of her creative self that have manifested over the years, through homages to artists she’s worked with or grown up admiring: Gabriel Moses, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Keith Haring, Michael Aboya. “I’ve always wanted to do right by the music, always wanted my visuals to look a certain way and truly encapsulate what the music is portraying,” says Simz. “I just take great care, I pay attention to detail and want things to be of a certain standard and quality. I take great pride in my art and that means taking time and having an overview of what I’m trying to accomplish.”

What’s even more striking about “Gorilla” is that there’s little concern with wanting to be the best or even proving that she is (“I’m cut with a differ- ent scissor”). Those that concern themselves with being the best often miss out on what can be learned in vulnerable moments. Easier said than done. In art as in many areas of life, we’re up against versions of ourselves and the competition for people’s attention. Chasing greatness can be a lonely and gruelling endeavour.

In late 2015, at her headline show at the O2 Academy Islington, Simz capped a raucous performance with a rendition of “Dead Body”, an early calling card. A remix featuring Stormzy and Kano had just dropped online, and the crowd was abuzz with expectation they would join her on stage for the song’s performance. Sure enough, they did, and Simz’ ascent as a rising star of the Black British music scene seemed assured. Kano would eventu- ally become an acting colleague, and Stormzy would go on to become the Stormzy the world knows today. Simz could reel off milestone moments such as these in our conversation as evidence as to why she’s one of the best in this country. But going back to that moment in 2015, the only thing those three artists needed was to prove to themselves they could be and do anything. Eight years later, that much is still true.

Simz’ friendship with producer Inflo goes back to when they were kids, but it was on Grey Area where she took a sharp turn in her approach to crafting albums, by working with one sole producer. “I’ve known ’Flo since I was nine so we’ve always had great chemistry and always been true to the art and music,” says Simz of her collaborator, who has been a constant on every album since. “Together, we crafted a sound that works. He’s fearless with the music he creates and when you work with someone like that it’s so freeing because there’s no limitation as to where it can go.”

Friends come together all the time to create meaningful things.For those who have read Questlove’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, you’ll know that the Soulquarians – a loose 90s hip-hop collective and influence on Simz’ own music – wasn’t a lofty, spur-of-the-moment decision. It was years of hanging out in Philly living rooms back when the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Eve, Jill Scott and many others before a conscious decision was made. Even then, it was the media that gave the collective their moniker. They represented a community that spanned various cities, in some cases, countries too. With Simz, Inflo and Cleo Sol, a musical soulmate who is also the partner of ’Flo, the same can also be said; it’s years of knowing each other, attending family functions and being there when no one else can.

Grey Area was followed by Cleo Sol’s debut Rose in the Dark and a small run of projects by SAULT, the mysterious R&B combo helmed by Inflo, then another Simz EP in 2020. A year later, Simz released another album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, but not before Cleo Sol would return with her second album Mother, both followed by a string of SAULT projects. “Outside of this music stuff, that’s my actual family,” says Simz. “We all do what we do with the right intention. You’re not hearing sounds, you’re hearing inten- tion and you can hear that when ’Flo plays a chord. This is home for me.”

The timing of these releases coincided with the pandemic, each project prompting questions in the listener we were all forced to reckon with, in some way or another, at the time. What do I want from life? What does all of this mean? are questions I certainly asked myself during those two years as I made a number of life-altering decisions, but it was through listening to SAULT, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert and Mother, in particular, where a semblance of stillness was found through thinking more intentionally. Art can have that effect.

Fans and media alike have been clamouring to find out the names involved in SAULT, even though Inflo, Simz and Cleo Sol are all conspicuous in their involvement outside of the project’s personnel credits. That desire to know overlooks something important: namely, the group’s embrace of community over individualism. “We’re all channelling something bigger than ourselves,” says Simz. “People are intrigued by what we’ve got going on over here, which surprises me and doesn’t at the same time. Everyone thinks there’s a secret or a formula, [but] it’s just not having an ego.”

“Music is energy. You want it to bounce off the walls, you want it to bounce between people, you want it to fill a room” – Little Simz

If there’s anything to take away from Simz’ work in recent years, it’s that finding comfort in success can just be about finding fellowship with other artists and recognising your own power. The fear that anyone would have to overcome to decide, ‘You know what? Today, I feel like showing people something different.’ Now, Simz gets to decide which version of herself she wants to be today. The musician. The rapper. Actor. Writer. Producer. “You’re free to be experimental and take risks,” she says of her approach to her work, which will next see her reprising her role in a new season of Top Boy. “Sometimes it’s scary but it’s so rewarding.”

“Music is energy,” she explains. “You want it to bounce off the walls, you want it to bounce between people, you want it to fill a room. It’s just fun to make music with people.” By her own admission, previous projects before Grey Area often had multiple producers sending beats over email with Simz recording whenever and wherever she was able. Working solely with one producer across various projects required a willingness to embrace the possibilities that opened up, a letting-go of what she thought she knew. The musical telepathy evident in No Thank You could not have been achieved on Simz and Inflo’s first project, as it required a deeper level of understanding of one another which may not have possible in 2019.

The publication of her first book this year proved one thing, at least: concern with being the best is child’s play. Simply titled the *book, the project features words and original photography from Simz and is described by the rapper as “a representation of my journey throughout life, the places I have visited, as well as people I have encountered. My moments, my thoughts, my accolades, my world... transcribed into pages, pictures, textures and colours”.

In 2020, Butterz’ co-founder Elijah began his Yellow Squares project, an Instagram grid full of slogans aimed at demystifying industry navigation for creatives, particularly in music. In one, he talks about the importance of documenting your process. Of course, the finished article is what most people value, but showing how you arrived there allows others to see that the process is always imperfect until it isn’t. The saying that you’re only as good as your last project feeds into hyperconsumption, and rarely allows space for an artist to show things as they are and not what they’ll eventually look like to the world. “I treated [the book] like a journal so I wasn’t trying to make anything rhyme or rap to an instrumental. It was just my words,” says Simz. “My main thing was to give people and myself the opportunity to say things I wouldn’t normally say with music.” The rapper brought us in closer to witness the inner workings of her own creative process, and the book gives some idea as to how her work moves from concept to reality.

That’s not the only way the rapper is branching out. She is set to drop her custom Vans shoes as part of the brand’s Off the Wall campaign in the near future, while for “I Love You, I Hate You”, a centrepiece from Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Simz created an ambitious, 20-minute short film directed by Sam Pilling and scripted by London-based poet Caroline Adeyemi. For Simz, it was about acknowledging a past situation and overcoming the emotions she was confronted with when writing the song. All that angst and self-doubt was poured into the making of the film. “Getting older definitely plays a part in my music maturing,” says Simz. “Getting older, having new experiences, making new mistakes. Never the same mistakes: always new ones, because I’m human.”

“I’ve always been creative at heart, whether that’s music, photography or any of my other endeavours” – Little Simz

It’s difficult to define artists based on ceilings. Simz’ audience is global and has been for years, but the path hasn’t always been so clear for Black female artists in Britain. The success stories of people maintaining a presence as a musical artist are few and far between. There’s the constant pressure of reminding people you’re in the room, and then, when you arrive, it’s getting those inside not to use your name as a footnote when it’s brought up in conversation. Simz has found a remedy for that pressure. “I’ve always been creative at heart, whether that’s music, photography or any of my other endeavours,” she says. “I think I’ve managed to surround myself with people who support that and encourage me to keep experimenting and trying new things.”

Simz has forged her own lane but to walk it, she’s had to overcome obstacles along the way. “I’ve found ways to deal with the frustration but I also think that my focus and attention is on other things,” she says. “I was probably worrying a lot about things I didn’t have but now my focus is more about what I do have and getting better.” It’s a feeling artists experience all too often, because there’s an underlying understanding that where you are currently is very rarely where you want to be. On the other hand, sometimes it’s just about getting on with it and controlling what can be controlled, leaving the rest up to chance. “Being frustrated doesn’t really do anything; it just leads to more frustration. I’ve found a way to use that energy in a different way and be productive.”

More people certainly know who Little Simz is now, but she’s more than just the sum of her work to date: there’s a fire in her belly to see how far this can go. “As long as I continue to be playful and have fun with what I’m doing, the evolution’s naturally going to go to a place that I can’t predict,” she says. “I just have to remember who I am and who I was before all of this.”

This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a copy here.