In a black tracksuit and retro shades, her dreadlocks swept back in a white bandana, rapper Little Simz looks every inch the classic north London bar-spitter – the sort of MC whose skills were honed in youthful battles, but who, at 27, knows that her true opposition is not some MC in the next postcode. Simz’s opening salvo tonight, Introvert, takes laser-guided aim against endemic inequality and stacked odds, at mothers endlessly burying sons. Powerful and revelatory, it’s work on a par with that of east London’s Kano. An entire career could go by in this righteous vein.
But over the course of the next hour and three-quarters, Simz’s compact MC persona unfolds like a concertina, blown open by the epic sweep of strings and the earthy funk of bass. Halfway through her generous, versatile set, the performer born Simbiatu Ajikawo changes into roomier attire, arranging her hair into architectural forms not entirely unlike the cover of her most recent album, the groundbreaking Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – easily one of the best albums of the year.
In putting her hair up, Simz is actually letting her hair down, rapping about her Nigerian heritage, her troubled relationships and her ambivalence to fame. Four albums and several mixtapes and EPs into an independent and, until recently, self-managed recording career, Simz is star of mic and screen – that’s her in the recent Drake-fuelled reboot of Top Boy. But she is an artist with a distaste for handshakes and small talk. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is about many things – Black pride, female pride – but it is most often about how Simz came to understand and redeploy her introversion.
Tonight, there are Simz tracks that go hard – minimal, grandstanding grime cuts and staccato, trap-influenced flexes. Between her last album, 2019’s Grey Area, and last September’s album, she released a 2020 lockdown EP called Drop 6 whose rhythmic cut Might Bang, Might Not found her fronting furiously. “I am the force that we speak of/ What’s a wave to a tsunami?/ True, my drip enormous/ Your tap running out, talk about awkward,” she sneers tonight.
Her rubbery track Speed, from SIMBI, rivals Stormzy’s Vossi Bop for bouncy menace; Simz tops it off with an eardrum-searing, one-note keyboard solo. Earlier this year, she rebooted an old track, Venom, for the Venom: Let There Be Carnage film soundtrack and it promptly went viral on TikTok. It’s one of the highlights of the set, a fusillade of vengeful, rapid-fire syllables directed at those who “don’t like pussy in power”.
But Simz’s more dilatory songs come paired with 70s soul fusions, with violin filigree and daubs of jazz, thanks to an eloquent five-strong band all dressed in grey hoodies. Every so often they will join her in some little coordinated dance steps. Despite Sometimes I Might be Introvert’s title, Simz is a full-beam entertainer, whipping up the demonstrative Glasgow crowd, basking in the cresting waves of cheers. As the album makes clear, her introversion lies in hating “surface” behaviour, and protecting her energy with ample alone-time.
Like the Ivor Novello award-winning Grey Area, SIMBI was produced by Simz’s childhood friend, the notoriously camera-shy Dean “Inflo” Cover, whose white-hot CV includes a Mercury-winning album by Michael Kiwanuka, his own superlative outfit Sault and, most recently, parts of Adele’s 30. Powered by a 40-piece orchestra recorded at Abbey Road and soulful hooks that sound like samples but are compositions in their own right, SIMBI also features the voice of The Crown actor Emma Corrin. Her cut-glass diction (in playback tonight) encourages or goads Simz by turns, framing a nuanced concept album about the power in knowing yourself: “SIMBI” is short for Simbiatu.
Tonight, all these strings, horns and backing vocals are reproduced electronically. It’s slightly regrettable, but someone surely will find a budget for that full-fat show soon. The band, though, provide ample ebullience, coming in like a film score, but able to transport the crowd to west Africa for the Afrobeat-laden Point and Kill.
There are, perhaps, a couple too many bittersweet or pensive moments mid-set. But that is more than made up for by tracks such as Standing Ovation, which recalls 00s-era Jay-Z as opulently produced by the young Kanye West. Part autobiography, part motivational speech, in it Simz balances demands for her achievements to be recognised with an eloquent and impassioned salute to all the forces ranged against external and internal oppression – a shoutout to all “the spiritual teachers, the doers and the doulas”; to “the divine healers and the everyday low-paid believers”.