This Is Little Simz. Get Used to Hearing Her Name
Little Simz says it all in the opening track of her debut album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons: “Everybody knows that I’m King now. Women can be kings.”
The line is from the song “Persons” off of A Curious Tale, available now for your downloading pleasure on iTunes. It’s very much a “I have arrived” declaration, but it feels weird to call Simz, born Simbi Ajikawo and raised in North London, a newcomer to music. She’s been writing songs since her pre-teen years and has dropped eight mixtapes on her Bandcamp page—seven solo and one with her tight knit group of friends, Space Age—since February 2013. And the last four of those solo tapes were released under the label she formed last August called Age 101. Suffice to say, it’s been an ambitious 21st year of her life.
At the time of our conversation, Simz was decompressing in Los Angeles before the demands on her time and attention ratchet up with the release of Trials + Persons. But if you listen to basically anything that Simz has recorded over the past two years, and you’ve got massive output to draw from, you’ll realize that Simz is ready for her debut. She could have signed with a major label earlier and hopped on the fast track to dropping her first LP, but instead she planted her flag as an independent artist with a label of her own and complete creative control of her content. We wanted to know what it’s like to turn your back on the music establishment, to be name-checked by the most important voice in hip-hop, and to be an alien. So we asked her. These are the things we learned.
Don’t Call Her a Rapper
In a recent interview with The Guardian Simz was asked if she sees a future as the UK’s biggest female MC. She answered, “I’m not a UK female MC. I’m an artist. I’m a musician. I’m not someone you can put in a box.” And while that does feel like a typical answer from the Young and Hungry set, Simz actually has spent her life moving across art disciplines. She started out dancing at her youth club (what we here in the States would call a youth center), and even taught dance throughout her teens before transitioning to acting. She appeared in the two British series called Spirit Warriors and Youngers (the latter as recently as 2013) before deciding to dedicate herself fully to music.
But Simz, a self-described introvert, credits her dramatic experience with helping to open her up on stage. “I’m not an out there person if it’s not on stage or if I’m not around people I’m most comfortable with,” she says. “I’m just not that person. But with I guess being ‘Little Simz’ now I’m finding ways to be a bit more open with it.”
From her mixtapes to her brand new album, Simz frequently refers to herself as an otherworldly figure. “Alien life, I don’t really fuck with human beings” she says as she blazes through “Used to Know” from Drop 3. Also, her artist collective goes by Space Age and each of her Age 101 tapes has illustrations of Simz set against celestial imagery.
“I’m just a bit of a dreamer and I get really in my thoughts. I get so deep with myself at times it’s almost very scary,” says Simz, lightly laughing off the indictment of her own mental processes. “I don’t actually think it’s healthy, because sometimes I’m like living in another world.”
And while they may be Earth-bound (for the most part), Simz uses A Curious Tale to assume different personae and speak from their perspective. On “Persons” she is a King and an alien visitor. On “Tainted” she’s a jaded starlet hollowed out by fame, and on “Dead Body” she’s a homeless person. “Taking on different characters and seeing things through the eyes of different people is interesting to me,” says Simz. “When I look at what people are going through in life I try to understand their story.”
She’s Kind of a Big Deal
In 2013 (just to review: that was at age 19) Simz got a nice little hat tip from the Jay Z camp when his website Life + Times featured her fourth mixtape, Blank Canvas. And while that was only a passive endorsement of her abilities (Jay himself has never publicly blessed Simz), other tastemakers have been explicit with their praise. “There’s a young lady out here that’s pretty dope by the name of Little Simz. … She might be the illest doing it right now,” is what Kendrick Lamar said about her on the BBC Radio 1 show MistaJam.
“It was very flattering and very overwhelming,” Simz says about the callout by Lamar, which she notes had the added resonance of being broadcast in her home country. The two have spent some time together, and so hearing his kind words did feel a bit like “a friend just singing your praises as opposed to, like, Kendrick Lamar.” But she also has the perspective to realize that getting a co-sign from Kendrick Lamar is a big deal to anyone who’s paying attention. “He owes me nothing,” added Simz. “He didn’t have to say that but he did, and that just says a lot about him and the fact that real recognize real. I’ll forever be thankful for that.”
She’s Doing It For Herself
After getting the nod from Life + Times the music industry took notice of Simz and flew her out to New York at age 19 for some wining and dining. It was the moment she’d always dreamed of, but when the dotted line was held up in front of her she was less than impressed by what was being offered. “For the longest time I was that artist that wanted to be signed to a record label, because that was all I was taught that would work for me,” says Simz. “It wasn’t until I met my manager and looked at his way of thinking [that I changed my mind], and then also being approached by record labels and being disappointed, because this is not what I thought it was gonna be. All the artists that they was picking up, essentially, they kind of sold a piece of themselves to get to that place. And I just didn’t really like the idea of that.”
So instead, Simz traded in the major labels for her own and formed Age 101 last August. Until Blank Canvas got her an industry-level blessing, Simz had been using beats she found online to accompany her flow. No one wanted put their time into someone they’d never heard of. “I struggled with working with producers because no one openly wanted to give me a chance to rap on their beats,” says Simz. “That’s just honest talk. No one really wanted to take that risk.” So She kept writing and mixing all of her songs essentially in her bedroom. With the juice she picked up from Canvas Simz was able to make her first EP of entirely original work, called E.D.G.E.. She kept working with local producers and her Space Age crew and started releasing the Drop tapes under her label, which caught the attention of Red Bull Studios in London earlier this year.
She appeared on their Launched series in April, which has previously featured acts like Jessie Ware, Sam Smith, Charli XCX, and Bastille. Simz clearly made a good impression, because she recorded Trials + Persons entirely for free at their “nice comfy ass studio” in London. Ware has done the same, recording both of her albums with them at the expense of the company.
The notion of corporate-sponsored music seems a bit hinky at first, but when you consider how tightly major labels are able to control the artists on their rosters it starts to feel a lot less icky by comparison. And Simz says that she’s been given complete creative freedom by Red Bull. The company will also be doing the heavy lifting of publishing her debut as well. “I get the benefits of being in control and having things sound exactly the way I want them to sound and working with who I want to work with,” says Simz. “I get that creative control and that freedom and then I get to put it out under my own label, which is a bonus. And then I get the support of a major corporation like Red Bull backing my shit, helping with funding.”
The Internet: A Blessing and a Curse
Like all ambitious millennials, Simz is trying to sort out her relationship with Internet, trying to reconcile her real life with her digital one. For an artist who uses her music as a journal and commits to an uncompromising kind of honesty about her strengths and weaknesses and aspirations and insecurities, the fact that she has to manage an “online presence” is discomfiting, even if it is essential to her success. Asked about her relationship with social media, her answer is a case study of what it’s like to be a young person striving for authenticity who’s also forced to participle in The Hustle.
“It’s kind of given me the world to be completely honest, because it’s accessible everywhere. So there’s no limit,” she says. “However, I’m not really a fan of it like that. I would say if I wasn’t a musician I would delete my Twitter. I would have like 30 followers on Instagram and my Instagram would be way more turnt. It would just be for me and my friends. But now I am very conscious about what I post and what I say and I don’t really like that I have to sensor shit. If that’s the case I might as well not be on it.”
She Has a Great Story. A Lot of Them, Actually
A theme that comes up throughout a conversation with Simz is The Story. She wants to be an example and an inspiration and a trailblazer. Examples: When asked about foregoing major label support she says, “Anything that’s kind of easy isn’t really worth it in my opinion. I like fighting for things. It’s more rewarding and it’s more of a story. I’m all about the story.” And when asked about why she started her own label instead she responds, “It’s just such an inspiring story, being the fact that I’m 21 years old from North London, a female at that. I’m a young woman. … It’s more about everything around it. And that’s the story. That’s the message.” Why Red Bull? That’s “part of the story” too.
As far as her own story is concerned, Simz has already written and rewritten that dozens of times. She’s been an alien and a King and a diva and a vagrant and a literal struggling girl next door (see: “God Bless Mary” on Trials + Persons). That’s a lot of narrative to pack in to just two decades of life on Earth, but who knows how many she’s packed into the infinite world stretching through her mind. And regardless of how her debut album fares, Simz isn’t worried, because the story is just beginning.
“A lot of people have told me ‘This is impossible and you should just do it the traditional way because that is more guaranteed to work.’ And it’s like ‘Well, how about no?’ I’m not too concerned if it sells or if it gets in the charts,” she says in a tone so relaxed it’s hard not to believe. “I’m not worried, because my career is long-lasting. So I’m not worried if my first record doesn’t sell what I would ideally like it to, because I’ve got more under my belt. And I’m gonna keep evolving and getting better and better.”