From the epic opening strains of “Introvert,” the introductory track on Little Simz’s sweeping, eclectic new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, you know you’re in for something special. The album is equal parts fantasy storybook and intimate journal marked all the way through by the London native’s wit and vulnerability. It’s no wonder that it has been so highly regarded, perching neatly near the top of so many publications’ 2021 year-end lists. Her broad-ranging and nigh universal critical acclaim could be the first step toward her gaining and maintaining a toehold on the public’s attention stateside.
Such a feat would put her in rare company; while there have been several British rappers to develop cult followings in the US, few of them ever did so while maintaining such a stark, British outlook on the art form. Going back to the 1980s, rappers like Monie Love and Slick Rick switched up their accents to fit in — you’d hardly know they weren’t from New York’s concrete jungle hearing them rap alongside contemporaries like Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh. In the ’90s and 2000s, MF DOOM earned a stranglehold on the city’s underground scene, but again, there were many who were unaware of his origins until his visa issues in 2010.
Hell, even 21 Savage was unaware of his own British citizenship until recently, and his struggles to remain in the country in which he grew up have highlighted this nation’s archaic and byzantine approach to immigration policy. For all intents and purposes, he’s an Atlantan at heart and sounds like it. And while there was a minor grime explosion here in the US, it was largely spearheaded by another immigrant, Drake, who made a point of collaborating with artists like Skepta and Headie One. However, their popularity on their own feels limited to their joint works with artists who already hold a certain degree of social capital.
Simz is different. Her growing popularity on this side of the pond has come organically, without the help of flashy local features, which she has mostly eschewed since her signature 2017 project Stillness In Wonderland, on which the first inklings of her fantastical flourishes began to sprout. 2019’s Grey Area continued in much the same vein, showcasing the Brit’s verbal virtuosity and singular approach to left-of-center production. Unlike many of her countrymen, she seems distinctly disinterested in integrating popular local sounds — there’s no trap and nothing that could be counted as classic boom-bap either.
Nor does she employ the glitchy, sometimes off-putting digital sounds that have distinguished grime and drill, the two main British exports in rap-focused music, although she has dabbled in them from time to time. Instead, the production on SIMBI (it’s her name, see) is organic, pulsing with the living energy of the score from an epic, swords-and-sorcerers film series like Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones. There is that regal-sounding intro, the Blaxploitation big band feel of the soul-baring “I Love You, I Hate You,” the militant funk of “Standing Ovation,” and the moody ballad, “How Did You Get Here.”
She also sticks close to her roots, incorporating West African rhythms into tracks like “Point And Kill” and “Fear No Man.” And despite the similarity of their titles, Simz’s approach to the praise of her gender on “Woman” is a far cry from Doja Cat’s, backed by a slinky beat and loungey instrumentation supported by Cleo Sol’s lilting chorus. Through it all, Simz’s poised flow anchors the wide-ranging production, drawing listeners in with its conspiratorial quiet. Though she rarely raises her voice, she still wields it like a dagger, whirling and flashing in dextrous patterns with the cool of concrete at twilight.
While hip-hop and rock-and-roll are cousins with unsurprisingly similar origins and parallel trajectories over the course of their respective eras of dominance in global pop culture, there’s one area in which they diverge. After rock swept the globe, the US was visited upon by the acts it had inspired, like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who were met with an equally fervent enthusiasm to the one that brought these acts to our shores seeking their fortunes here. While rap has been met with just as much excitement around the world, that love has rarely been reciprocated by Americans who’ve kept international hip-hop acts at arm’s length.
Ironically, as I write this, the Disney+ streaming service hosts a documentary about The Beatles, their process, and their popularity called The Beatles: Get Back which stitches together close to eight hours of footage of the Liverpool band noodling around and creating some of their beloved works. It’s hard to say whether we’ll be watching a similar show about any British hip-hop acts in 50 years — after all, times, they have a-changed — but right now, Little Simz is at the cusp of starting her own British Invasion, one that could prove to be every bit as fascinating and influential as the original.