Grey Area, by Little Simz
Suggested by Paul Wray
“How can you listen to this crap?” asked my mother, as I played my Iron Maiden records. I rolled my eyes. Parents, man… they never understand.
Growing up in the parental home, until I decamped to my own abode at the ripe age of fifteen, my mother was the biggest critic of my burgeoning musical proclivities. To paraphrase Chandler in his box, her complaints were threefold:
One, it was just too damn loud.
Two, it all sounded the damn same.
Three, it was always about demons and devils and murder and crap.
Complaint the first was easy to refute. Too loud? I set my metal at a volume of two out of ten, while my siblings played their Boney M or poptastic tunes at six or seven. But my mother liked their songs, so that was fine.
The other points? Harder to discredit, but doable nonetheless. It definitely didn’t all sound the same, which she’d realise if she were an afficionado like myself. And as for the dark subject matter… it’s in keeping with the musical tone, as thrash songs about butterflies or other such schmaltzy fare would sound patently ridiculous.
Now, in my late forties, I can sympathise with her viewpoint. If we take Modern Rap, for example, you’ll find my complaints run largely alongside my mother’s Gripes Against Metal. Rap has a template, and the protagonists are interchangeable. And the subject? Eat, sleep, hustle, repeat. Get money get bitches pop caps profit.
Little Simz is a 27-year-old London rapper, and Grey Area is her third album. It’s critically acclaimed, apparently, with a win at the Ivor Novellos and a nomination for the Mercury Prize.
Firing it up, I felt apprehensive. Rap has been a bugbear of mine, lately at least. Had my break reset my breakers? Am I ripe for a Rap reboot?
Let’s take the two complaints, step by step. First, the subject matter… Yes, it seems that Little Simz touches all the bases. There’s braggadocio, vitriol, bombast, setbacks, murder, violence, and so on. The whole kit and caboodle. At times, I mask an involuntary eyeroll, but I can’t deny that Simz has skills in this department. She doesn’t come over as hackneyed or cliched, and there’s a brutal undercurrent of honesty throughout. And, to paraphrase the teenage me, if she rapped about candy floss she’d be laughed out of the funhouse.
Next, there’s the hoary old “it sounds the same” issue. Delightfully, this album is the very antithesis of this notion. The variety on offer is Grey Area’s most pronounced strength. Each song is supremely distinct, effortlessly stylish, and perfectly pitched. There’s the disquieting Venom, with its jangle-jar opening strings; the succulent closer Flowers, with its almost Gospel flow; the Asian-infused 101 FM; the low-key R&B dance of Selfish; and my standout, the buzzing and overclocked Boss, with its tin-can-alley chic and gloriously flabby bass.
Grey Area is a vibrant red, scoring 8/10. It’s accomplished, eclectic, intelligent, surprising and cool. Little Simz brings it, strong, from the chest, and I can’t help but feel breathless from the heat.