The first time we meet, I hear Little Simz before I see her.
I follow the sound of the heavenly “Cleo Sol” chorus, from Simz’s latest release “Woman”, as it seeps out of huge windows and into the carpark of a southwest London industrial park.
Inside, it’s completely dark, besides one single light beaming on Simz as she runs through more new songs – some released, some not – from her upcoming fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Billed as her most cathartic and ambitious record yet, the follow-up to the north London rapper’s Mercury-nominated GREY Area promises to dig deep.
Simz has always kept to herself. She could be one of those rappers who posts constantly, sends shots at their peers and slides through the world with bravado, but it doesn’t appeal to her.
“I didn’t know how to really navigate that, especially coming in this industry where you’re expected to have this extroverted persona all the time,” she told The Guardian earlier this year. Even her social media presence is largely muted. But over time, we’ve seen her music speak. On her last album she criticised the government on “Pressure” and grappled with the aftermath of a friend lost to knife crime on “Wounds”. She might be an introvert, but she’s still open.
When I walk in, she’s chatting with different crew members and stops to hug me before stepping up to perform “Woman” again, from the top, to the camera, rapping without missing a beat. Near the end of the performance – filmed for the US promo of her album – she takes a step out of the spotlight, then steps back into it, wrapping both hands around the mic before introducing the next, as-yet-unreleased, single as “one of the most personal songs on the album”.
This is something she’ll say a lot, which makes sense: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert really is the most distinctive, introspective album she’s put out to date. So much so that the album’s initials – S.I.M.B.I – spell out the nickname her close friends call her. Clearly, she feels comfortable turning the lens onto herself. So, question: how did Simz reach the point of Introvert’s self-excavation?
Noisey Cover Story, August 2021. Photo: Bekky Calver
When we catch up two days later, this time over lunch, we’re sampling each other’s meals (shepherd’s pie for Simz, sweet potato curry for me) at a brasserie in King’s Cross. It’s a “really fancy place”, Simz confirms, before settling into a plush velvet armchair and telling me how much she’s looking forward to the end of coronavirus restrictions. As she looks over the menu, she talks about the roster of festivals lined up, as well as her upcoming European tour. Although there’s still the possibility of looming festival cancellations, she’s looking forward to “performing in front of live audiences again, not cameras”.
But the pandemic doesn’t mean Simz ever stopped being busy. A month into England’s first lockdown in April of 2020, she recorded Drop 6 – a five-track EP of stripped back hip-hop; just drums, snares and an urgent delivery. She started recording because she’d had enough of “chilling”, and self-produced the tracks – each of which runs for less than three minutes – herself. Clearly, she was gearing up for Introvert, which she refers to as a “masterpiece” on Drop 6 track “where’s my lighter”.
After finishing Drop 6, she created a photo book. She shot friends from their balconies and doorsteps, printed off a bunch and gave them to her nearest and dearest, simply because she “just wanted to do something for them at this time”. By the time summer came around, she was bored of London and went to Berlin – a home away from home, just like LA (where she spent her 27th birthday with friends, before lockdown restrictions forced her back to north London).
Two years have passed since GREY Area’s success. As well as the Mercury Prize nomination, the record snapped up two Best Album Awards at the 2020 Ivor Novello and NME Awards. Simz says that the pressure to write, record and release a follow-up that wouldn’t live in GREY Area’s shadow almost sapped her creativity.
“Everyone's looking at me, like, ‘Is that a fluke? Or is it gonna be a GREY Area II?’” she says. “That pressure can subconsciously creep into your creativity, because you start wanting to make music to please. But I didn't make GREY Area to please anyone, I was just making what I enjoy making.”
Photo: Bekky Calver
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was born after Simz forgot what everyone else had to say. The album pushes her honesty and storytelling to the limit, giving a guided tour inside her brain.
“Miss Understood” lays bare a tense relationship with her sister. “How Did You Get Here” sees her reflect on her career from the beginning to the present; and interludes, featuring the voice of The Crown’s Emma Corrin – yes, Simz binged the show over lockdown too – represent the little voice in the back of her mind, asking her whether she just wants her 15 minutes of fame. It’s the most of herself she’s put into a record yet.
Simz isn’t one to divulge any details about her romantic relationships – definitely not online, because “once it’s out there, you can’t take it back” – but the album features a tender love song, “I See You”. The track features a rare appearance from a soft-spoken Simz. It’s real slow-dancing-in-the-kitchen-into-the-early-hours-with-your-babes kind of music (“I’m speaking your love language, reading body language / Our connection requires a deeper understanding”). As soon as I mention the song’s title, Simz’s eyes dart down into her shepherd’s pie and an embarrassed smile cracks into a laugh.
“I value mystery,” she says, remaining vague about the details of any lingering romance. “Something did occur, or is occurring, in my life that I felt great pleasure and joy from, and I’m somewhat OK with documenting it in my music. I'm learning how to draw from good and fulfilled and happy spaces, as opposed to it always being trauma-led.”
Photo: Bekky Calver
But tapping into that joy and softness felt worlds apart from how Simz usually delivers when she records. “My approach was like, ‘WOULD YOU TAKE ME AS I AM?’” she laughs. “My team was like, ‘Calm down. It’s meant to be a love song.’ I'm so used to being so direct, and I need to know when to tone it down and just speak. I wanted a lot of songs to feel just conversational.”
That relatability has always been what sets Simz apart. The album’s fourth single, “I Love You, I Hate You”, is a searing account of her feelings about her dad (“I’m not forgiving for you / Man, I’m forgiving for me”). When it dropped in early July, the response was so immediate that Simz’s usually quiet Instagram Story was filled with reposted fan messages of gratitude, realisation and proclamations that she’s a “female gaze icon”, for taking charge of the narrative around a difficult father-daughter relationship.
Most of the familial themes on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert are ones which Simz wouldn’t have felt ready to tackle on her earlier albums. Years before, talking about her father would have only unleashed rage, and it’s daunting to put things into music knowing you’ll inevitably be asked about it in interviews. Now, she feels able to answer “and not crumble, or feel like ‘Shit, people know that I’m hurt.’”
“He probably will never hear it, but that’s fine,” she continues. “It’s not actually about him – it’s about me, and me confronting and talking openly and honestly about how I've been affected by this. People have conflict in relationships with their parents – it’s not anything new. I can’t shy away from that but claim to be so honest in my music, when this is clearly one thing that, lowkey, has eaten me for a long time. I don’t know who else it might help.”
Photo: Little Simz by Bekky Calver
As much as Simz is known for digging deep and telling honest stories, keeping her cards close to her chest is what really comes natural to her.
“I come from a very Nigerian background, and you can’t just be putting out family business like that. I’ve been knowing this my whole life, you know… ‘When people come over, don’t let out this,’” she says, sipping on a post-meal herbal tea. “[My mum] gets how honest I am, but to put it out to the world… I know it’s difficult for her to wrap her head around, but she’s very proud and she’s very supportive.”
Without that support from those around her – particularly her longtime collaborator and childhood friend, Inflo, who produced some of the album – Introvert probably wouldn’t exist in its current form.
“I’m very stubborn. I can shut things down and say, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t want to go there,’ but Flo has a way of getting it out of you,” she says. “There's just a level of trust. He’s not drawing anything out that’s going to put me on blast and embarrass me, he’s digging because he knows it’s gold.”
Together, the duo unleash something that Simz says she hasn’t quite been able to before. Every song touches on a different genre that Simz knows and loves. “Protect My Energy” has the essence of 80s synth-pop. “Point and Kill” is a nod to her Nigerian heritage and features Nigerian singer Obongjayar. “I just want to create and try new shit. I made a little emo tune,” she says, face cracking into a big dimpled smile. “It’s never going to see the light of day. But it’s me on some rock shit, just for fun. It’s definitely very left, but it’s actually hard.”
Photo: Litte Simz by Bekky Calver
When you’re baring your soul, you’re not just creating “album of the summer” fodder. You want it to be timeless. So, during studio time, Simz mainly listened to the “classics”: Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Biggie Smalls. “I was studying why people connected with these artists – why is their music so timeless? I want to make a staple album. I want you listening in ten years and you’re like, ‘Rah, remember when that came out and what that done?’”
No matter how in touch with your emotions you are, turning yourself inside out and showing them to the world – be it admitting that you’re in love, examining the rifts in your family or just looking back on how far you’ve come – is difficult. It’s something Simz has been processing for months and years, and, although it’s daunting, she’s ready to finally get it all out there.
“I can only imagine it’s like having a nine-month pregnancy, and you know this baby has to come out of your vagina,” she says. “But you know you’re ready to be a mum.”
Photographed by Bekky Calver in London, July 2021.