Full disclosure: GREY Area is my album of the year. I know that I did that whole “21 Best Albums” piece and made a point of only listing things in alphabetical order rather than assigning a proper ranked list and everything, but gun to my head The Album for me in 2019 is GREY Area. No other album has been spun by myself so relentlessly throughout all of 2019, no other album from this year has been so tightly and perfectly constructed – I genuinely meant it when I said that I can envision future MCs coming up having learned their craft from picking this one album apart with a fine-toothed comb; the beat-work, the lyrics, the flow, especially the delivery – and no other album from this year has seen its creator put it together and finally realise their talent so thoroughly.
I had been aware of Little Simz for years, having first popped up onto my radar with the ferociously menacing “Dead Body” in 2015, but I wouldn’t say that I became a full-on committed “this woman is something special” fan until I saw her open for Gorillaz on the 2017 Humanz Tour in Manchester. To watch this youthful yet grizzled veteran – she’s currently just 25 years old but has been recording for a decade and writing raps for even longer than that – whom so many of the crowd didn’t know turn an entire arena into a pogoing name-chanting army so on-side that her later reappearances during the main Gorillaz set saw her get cheers on almost the same level as Vince frickin’ Staples through nothing but sheer force of will was exhilarating to witness. That she did so with a shockingly varied setlist of songs in such a short space of time – flitting from hard flexing bangers to introspective rumbles to even a sung guitar-based ballad – and still had everybody on side was near-miraculous. When I got to the merch table afterwards, people were buying Simz merch just as often as they were buying Gorillaz merch.
Turns out when she flexes on GREY Area highlight (as if they aren’t all highlights) “Boss” “haven’t seen the show til you see me live” that’s a statement of fact. Her third official album is the sound of Simbi refusing to be denied any longer, having spent a near-decade being overlooked and underappreciated due to a combination of industry sexism, British rap’s continued undervaluing by both the genre’s fans and the music press, and the often insular and wildly-ambitious nature of her prior albums admittedly being tough to penetrate at first. I think of it as Simz’s equivalent to DAMN., the hard, focussed and seemingly straightforward meeting of the mainstream on its own terms which just straight-up slaps from start to finish but, upon repeated spins and close enough attention, reveals itself over time to also be a thematically rich, deeply personal and idiosyncratic body of work. And just as everything finally fully clicked for Simz with the album, so it did with everything outside of it: raves across the board, a Mercury Prize nomination, and enough fans so hungry to see her that the modest October UK leg of her tour sold out so quickly she had to arrange additional bigger December dates to meet demand. At the kick-off date here at the Stylus in Leeds, these too have sold out.
It is a hot, hot crowd in the building tonight, contrasting the cold, cold weather outside. Opener Flohio, a South London rapper who appears to be filling in for previously announced support April + Vista, and her DJ both take the stage wrapped up in thick hoodies although it doesn’t take long before they start shedding layers. Even if I’m not fully sold on the tunes – blame the deafening bass which drowns out Flo’s raps and any definition to the beats for a good 80% of the set – I am very much sold on her. Only a select few of the crowd appear to know who Flo is but she’s about to let that stop her. With a combination of boundless energy, a relentless charm offensive, and just the right amount of cheek by playing with the audience and making them feel like a vital part of some communal experience, she manages to get voluntary shout-a-longs to bruising singles like “10 More Rounds” and even a spontaneous mosh pit by close. She refuses to be denied, which puts her in spirit on the same fertile ground as Simz.
Speaking of Simz, it is evident from the second she confidently strolls onto stage with a megaphone in hand to rattle through “Boss” that this is a hard-earned victory celebration of a show. There’s a twinkle in her eye and a specially teasing manner with which she delivers the “ya little bitch” accent during the chorus in her distinctive North London bark which whips the crowd into a fervour from which it doesn’t subside until post-encore. No matter how much she tries to disappear into the character behind each song, she can’t disguise her intermittent grins and disbelieving snickers at hearing a packed room of fans finally yelling back choruses and, in some cases, entire verses. This is her time and she is clearly revelling in that fact.
Her show has been designed to function as everything coming full-circle – at about the midpoint, she talks to the crowd about first playing a tiny basement in Leeds five years ago where she estimates 10 people total turned up, and now she’s sold out the Stylus. All of GREY Area gets an airing tonight, and is where a lot of the biggest crowd reactions come from with every one of the album’s choruses getting belted skywards by all assembled, but she also finds time to touch base with the albums and loosies which laid the groundwork. “God Bless Mary” from A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons is dedicated to the next-door neighbour who put up with young Simbi honing her craft in the dead of night all those years ago. “Backseat” on record is a woozy reflective piece as Simz looks back on her struggles to make it in a society and industry determined to make her a passenger rather than a driver, but tonight carries the triumphant air of someone who has finally managed to yank that wheel for themselves. Midway through, at the emotional peak of the set, Simz pulls up a chair to the edge of the stage and sits near-cross-legged on it to run through a medley of introspective cuts from Stillness in Wonderland, putting in context the shit she’s had to crawl through to get to this point.
It’s during this part of the set that I start getting flattering flashbacks to another similarly triumphant gig I attended this year: Janelle Monáe in Manchester. It’s not quite a one-to-one comparison, granted, but I got a similar vibe from watching Simz completely command that stage and keep demonstrating new skills to roaring approval from the assembled crowd. For the tour, she’s playing with a backing band whom she is in complete lock-step with for the set’s entirety, feeding off their energy much like how they feed off of hers. Prior to the Stillness medley, she hands over leadership reins to her DJ, picks up a bass, and all four players on stage run through a quickfire barrage of classic R&B/Hip Hop covers – including big singalongs for Faith Evans’ “Love Like This” and especially Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” – that obviously inspired a young Simbi; the result reminding me a tonne of when The Roots do similar medley-covers at their shows. “Sherbet Sunset”’s ending is extended so Simz can pull off a little guitar solo. And even though she has a more than capable DJ-cum-hype-man and a lot of fast-moving intense rhymes to rattle off, she almost never misses a step and only leans on him or the flourishing backing tapes for choruses.
Even then, that seems to be less out of a need to take a breather and more because the crowd are doing her job for her. As mentioned, this is a properly triumphant gig. Every song gets a ridiculously loud cheer of recognition, most especially and most-femininely “Sherbet Sunset.” Mosh pits are a frequent occurrence following the towering drop of “Venom,” and Simz eventually feels compelled to clamber into the crowd to soak up their energy by osmosis whereupon a near-crushing surge descends upon the dancefloor. That old standby trick of dropping a song only to restart because the crowd has been deemed not sufficiently crazy enough only happens twice (a truly raucous “101 FM” and the aforementioned “Venom”) and that’s only done in an effort to push the already hyped crowd into total overdrive.
After a cathartic “Flowers” closes out the main set, Simz takes a powder whilst a brief instrumental medley of her pre-GREY output is jammed out on-stage. Everyone is prepped for “Offence” to take us home, but then the instrumental hits the buzzing alarm of “Dead Body” and it stays there. Anticipation reaches a fever-pitch, this hadn’t been on the first UK leg’s setlist, and then Simz prowls back out to completely tear into her first calling card with a snarl and intensity which damn-near burns the building down. A brief pause and then “Offence” kicks up all the dust as the crowd shouts back every single bar and the biggest moshpit yet breaks out in the room’s centre. The encore closing the career conversation her setlist represents with a look to the future. This is her new calling card as a room full of fans scream back “I SAID IT WITH MY CHEST AND I DON’T CARE WHO I OFFEND, UH HUH, HA!” A lot can happen in five years, and Simz deserves every single one of those adoring screams.
GREY Area is available now to stream and buy on CD & vinyl on Age 101.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qqmv4daiBZg&w=560&h=315]
God Bless Mary
Good for What
Morning / One in Rotation / Bad to the Bone [Stillness in Wonderland medley]