Little Simz’s new album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, opens with possibly the least reticent song about reticence ever made. Called “Introvert”, it finds the Londoner rapping about “feelings I keep inside, but it’s time to reveal” to an immense orchestral and choral fanfare, like the opening credits to an Avengers film.
“It’s me finding power within my introversion,” Simz says. “People associate it with being really shy and quiet but I’m also very confident. I’ve never felt the need to be the loudest person in the room. I know my presence holds weight.”
Unfortunately, I cannot test the accuracy of that statement. True to the album’s theme, our meeting has become progressively more introverted in format. A face-to-face encounter was cancelled when Simz fell ill, so an alternative Zoom rendezvous has been arranged. At the allotted hour I am greeted by a disembodied hello from a blank rectangle on my desktop screen. Simz, it turns out, prefers to have her video turned off.
The 27-year-old, real name Simbiatu Ajikawo, is good at keeping herself to herself. Although record labels have offered her deals, she chooses to self-release her music. Her name was among those receiving a shout-out from Stormzy during his Glastonbury headline set in 2019, a moment of apotheosis for the UK’s resurgent hip-hop scene. Yet she does not slot easily into its ranks. “I’m not your ordinary rapper,” she insisted early in her career, on the 2013 mixtape Blank Canvas.
“I’ve always felt that I had something else to offer,” she says, speaking from her London home. “I’m in my own lane and I have been for a very long time. I plan to continue doing that.”
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is her fourth studio album. Its grammatically idiosyncratic title derives from her nickname Simbi, which is spelled out by the initial letters of the words. It is the follow-up to 2019’s Grey Area, a breakthrough record that was nominated for the Mercury prize for the year’s best album. Her new one ups the ante.
Almost double the length of Grey Area, the lyrics are a dense mix of memoir, social commentary, Afrocentrism, self-help and fantasy. The music encompasses cinematic orchestration, 1970s Afrobeat, classic soul and hard-boiled rap. Numerous voices are heard, from a sample of Smokey Robinson singing and children’s chants to spoken-word appearances by The Crown star Emma Corrin. Through it all moves the intent figure of Little Simz, a serious-minded focal point at the microphone.
Little Simz: ‘I’m kind of racing against myself’ © Nwaka Okparaeke
She reels off a list of venerated rap albums from the 1990s and 2000s as inspirations, landmark efforts by the likes of Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is another (Simz supported the US singer on tour in 2016 and 2017). “I just love how they put albums together, how they constructed and built them,” she says.
Rap’s customary self-boosterism is particularly driven in her. “Know it’s in my DNA to be great,” she raps on her album. Over the course of her career, she has compared herself in verse to Moses, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Picasso and Shakespeare. These examples are all men. However, the notion of Simz as a woman gatecrashing a boys’ club is dismissed. “I’m not conscious of it all,” she says of being a female rapper.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert allows a glimpse behind her armour-plated sense of self-belief. Anxieties and hidden feelings are admitted to, the sharing of a different kind of confidence. “Why the desperate need for applause?” she raps at one point. “Secretly hoping I’m done with the pen,” she reveals elsewhere in a moment of self-doubt.
“Sometimes, especially as a black woman, the narrative is that you must be strong, you can’t show weakness or fear,” she says of the album’s personal direction, with songs also about her father’s absence from her childhood and her difficult relationship with an older sister. “Actually, I’m just human. I do need to open up more and express myself and not be fearful of that.”
Simz grew up in Islington, north London, the youngest of four children of parents who had come to the UK from Nigeria. Her mother did most of the family work; her father was a sporadic presence, increasingly absent as she got older. She loved English and creative writing at school. A favourite film was Matilda, the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of an autodidact girl with special powers.
Sometimes as a black woman, the narrative is that you must be strong, you can’t show weakness or fear
“From a very early age, I was definitely a go-getter,” she says. “I understood hard work. Hard work beats talent. Talent doesn’t work hard. I’ve been super-focused.”
She began rapping in her early teens. Back then she used to do her vocals on a £20 microphone plugged into the back of a computer. Now, she makes songs with an orchestra recorded in Abbey Road Studios. “[It’s] just amazing to watch,” she says. “Very surreal.”
Her new album has been made with her regular collaborator, producer Inflo. Otherwise known as Dean Josiah Cover, he is a childhood friend who also likes to keep himself to himself. He is behind the elusive band Sault, which has self-released a series of highly acclaimed albums without its members giving interviews or appearing in public. Black British identity, racism and Black Lives Matter activism are recurring topics, set to an intriguing style of diasporic music from different sounds, geographies and eras.
Simz has appeared on a number of Sault songs, including this year’s album Nine. Race is a vital theme in Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, too. “I’m a black woman and a proud one,” she raps on “Introvert”. Another song tells the story of a cousin who was stabbed and spent weeks in a coma, victim of the knife-crime epidemic disproportionately affecting black Londoners. “It’s all part of my experience. I’m just speaking my truth,” she says.
In one song she refers to having to work twice as hard to succeed because of the colour of her skin. The standards that she sets for herself are of the highest variety, a form of pressure that must have the potential to exhaust as well as motivate. “Yeah, sometimes,” she says. “But it’s only me against me, so in that sense, no. I’m kind of racing against myself. I think I’ve found my way of dealing with it. I know when I need to switch off. I understand how to make things work for me.”
‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ is out now on Age 101 Music