Having posted a Ranked Rough Trade albums of the month and favourite tracks playlist for 2019, I’m going to try and shine a light on three albums that have been mainstays of my listening in the year. January has been a bit of a blur with work commitments and a new Cockapoo puppy named Bowie. So a month or so late, here goes with the first:
Occasionally a record hits you on the solar plexus. I can recall hearing Firestarter, or the Chemical Brothers’ Leave Home. Or Missy’s Get Your Freak On.
That’s a good place to start before moving on to Little Simz. Missy’s a black sonic innovator doing things her own way not playing by the rules of what the industry’s view of what a musician in her field should sound or look like.
Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo is North London born and bred. She writes, she sings and she acts – more of that later. Let’s stick with the music for now – Grey Area is her third and most successful LP.
Offence is built around a series of musical motifs that trigger an instant recall. A clatter of drums settles into a breakbeat. We get a four-note riff, bass deep down in our boots, squelchy as hell.
Me again, allow me to pick up where I left off
There’s an African sounding wave of woodwind, matched with a Love Unlimited string section. That bass line descends, like an American seventies cop theme, before the chorus introduces a declamatory Beyonce-like chant:
You’re not listening. I say it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend
Simz has been keen to emphasise on her Twitter feed that nothing is borrowed across the whole album. Whilst the elements may sound familiar from their genres, all have been created by Simbi and her team.
This is especially relevant with regard to Selfish with its sashaying soulful melodic chorus. This is a recurring theme, whereby the sweetness of songs like Selfish and Sherbet Sunset are mixed with the earthier charms of the likes of Boss or Venom, a grime track that has featured in Netflix’s Top Boy soundtrack. Simz has starred in the reboot of the former C4 series, a programme that is on our “to watch” list for 2020.
The album for me verges on perfection. It is concise (36 minutes), not a moment is wasted, but no excesses. The guest spots (Michael Kiwanuka on Flowers, Chronixx on Wounds) bring something different to the mix, not just mates returning favours for previous help. The cover art is stunning, the shot of Simz reminiscent of Francis Wolff’s work for Blue Notes. Simz is looking upwards from the shadows, no glamour, just strength.
This bare-bones approach translated well into the live environment when Simz and her three bandmates played EartH in Hackney, back in November. Playing to very much a home crowd, the set drew on Grey Area but also her two previous albums (which followed numerous mixtapes).
In fairness, I’d already had a tip-off as to how good an experience a Simbi gig was. One of our crew at Glastonburyhad headed over to the Park Stage to catch her late afternoon set. As I’d already bagged tickets for the Hackney gig, I declined. The feedback was good, my mates loving their 45 minutes with Simbi. She had delivered a killer set. The premise was similar to the Hackney concert. Three compadres, all dressed in white, instruments in the same colour, shout-outs to her North London cohort.
101FM goes back to Simz’ North London roots, playing video games and listening to pirate radio. It wasn’t the only occasion when she acknowledged where she came from at Hackney. God Bless Mary from Simz’ debut album thanked the elderly neighbour who didn’t complain whilst Simbi was learning her craft.
The gig was stunning, top five of the year material. Even now, four months on, I can sense the love and energy within the room – a true homecoming.
Little Simz goes from strength to strength. Grey Area appeared in many of the best of 2019 lists. Whilst there is much to admire in grime and UK hip-hop, Simz offers something different. Highly musical but lyrically she never sells herself or her gender short. Simbi is nobody’s fool. This is being done on her terms.
This sense of female empowerment clearly translates beyond her core audience. Sport England have just launched their This Girl Can campaign using Offence as backing music for the video. It works perfectly, showing women doing their thing in gyms, swimming pools and out cycling and running.
If this all sounds too nanny state, too worthy – well ignore it and go straight to the Grey Area. It’s February 2020 and it is still on regular rotation.
I can’t say better than that.