Little Simz

Defying categories with agile lyricism, the north London rapper’s latest work is her most personal and accomplished to date. From generational trauma to womanhood, Nina Simone to knife crime, she reveals the intimate and creative forces that shaped it

Little Simz wears AMI Paris throughout

Little Simz is a veteran. Though her cheeky down-turned smile and sentences punctuated with the language of millennial London give a glimpse of her true youth (the rapper is still firmly in her 20s), everything else about the North Londoner’s demeanour suggests she’s not new to this music game at all. Her energy is calm, her answers careful and considered, and her ambitions firmly unbothered by external pressure, in that way that only comes with time and maturity.

Releasing her first mixtape in 2010, Simz has been a name-on-lips for over a decade and in that time has had her fair share of hype and praise. Co-signed by everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Lauryn Hill, Damon Albarn to Stormzy, to call her your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper feels inadequate. Her intellectually agile lyricism, genre-dismantling versatility, and refreshingly individual approach to art has separated her from the pack since her inception. In the same breath however, her name is often brought up as one of the most underrated within the rap community, with some feeling her immense talent goes underappreciated by the wider industry.

While it’s well meaning, one of the best things about Simz is how little she concerns herself with such topics, instead choosing to carve her own untrodden path, and redefining what success can look like for a woman, or anyone, trying to make it in the genre. “I know what I’m on, and I know where I’m trying to get to,” Simz states simply. “I’m kind of done with focusing on who’s not picking up on me or talking about me or nominating me for this. There’s so much love and support out there for me, and that’s where I like to focus my attention… And I think my face is bait man, whether you fuck with it or not, you know my name.” That quiet confidence hasn’t always been there, she admits, having fallen into the trap of being frustrated with how others perceived her. “But,” she adds with a laugh, “a part of me thinks, was I really that bothered? Because I still never conformed!” And that stubbornness eventually paid off – now decorated with an NME Award and an Ivor Novello Award for best album, as well as Mercury Prize and MOBO nominations for her previous project GREY Area, the world is watching closely to see what Little Simz might do next.

Despite her position as a UK-rap mainstay, there’s always been a degree of mystery surrounding the person behind the music. Under Simz’ ‘personal life’ section on Wikipedia sit three short, distinct sentences (one that she lives in London and another that she’s an Arsenal FC fan, which are pretty much truisms for any Islington-based individuals). But her latest project delves the deepest yet into the rich and textured tapestry of one of the UK’s most brilliant musical brains. Titled Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, shortened to the acronym S.I.M.B.I, a version of her real name Simbiatu, the album’s opener poses the question at the heart of the 19-track odyssey: “Simz the artist or Simbi the person?” Through the intimate voyage into subjects of knife crime, generational trauma, and womanhood, unveiling new aspects of Simz as she navigates through personal heartbreak and growth – alongside some of the most sonically ambitious music she’s ever released – the answer is emphatically both. 

Up until now, the two sides of the Nigerian-British artist have remained distinct on purpose. “As much as I’m aware of who I am and where I sit in the world, I also just want to be able to have some things for myself,” Simz says of protecting her privacy. She’s also talked in the past about her reluctance to become a presumptuous spokesperson for the communities she’s deemed to represent: “I don’t claim to know everything at all; I’m still learning, so I have to be careful of what I say and what messages I put out there.” On S.I.M.B.I however, Simz’ personal and her political are endlessly entangled. The urgent and declarative single ‘Introvert’ lays bare all that’s wrong in Simz’ own world, with an accompanying visual that blends emotive choreography, protest footage and brutality within renaissance art, as she raps, “I’m not into politics / but I know it’s dark times / parts of the world still living in apartheid.” “I just want to encourage people to think for themselves, make their own decisions and – not in a patronising way – ask the right questions,” Simz explains.

‘Little Q, Pt 2’ is another breakthrough point in the project, written from the perspective of her own cousin, who Simz grew up with. “There was a period in life where we didn’t speak, you know, when you just get older and get your own friends and you just do your own thing. I didn’t see him for ages, and then we reconnected,” she says. “He was telling me all this mad stuff I had no idea that he’d experienced about his life and how he almost lost it. It’s just crazy; to anyone else he’d be just another Black boy, another number. But to me he’s my family and he’s so much more.” The song chronicles his rocky path, as Simz compassionately unpacks the nuances of his experience, and those like him, as well as its socio-cultural context: “We eat from a tree full of forbidden fruits / we all know the real criminals live in the suits,” she raps over a vintage-sounding beat reminiscent of early Kanye, complete with an exultant chorus singing a soul-soothing refrain. “I wanted to use my creative space to tell another story other than my own, because I think it’s just as important. Especially because it’s not just his story; probably a lot of Black boys in Britain can relate to this reality. So I wanted it to be shared, but I didn’t want the song to be depressing; I wanted it to feel hopeful and positive, like life gave you a second chance. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That’s a consistent theme throughout S.I.M.B.I, one of hope and growth. One of the standout singles ahead of release, and Simz’ most personal yet, ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ unearths Simz’ relationship with her estranged father in her own attempt to break the chain of generational trauma. Of bearing her insecurities in such an open way, Simz says, “It definitely felt scary but… it’s my truth innit! I’m someone who’s very feelings led, and I believe you can’t argue with how someone feels… With every album, I just want to get better, whether that’s lyrically or better at opening up; so these are the steps I’m taking in order to do that.” The song is a heart-wrenching confessional of bottled-up feelings, as Simz speaks directly to him:

“Hard to not carry these feelings even on my best days / never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak / anxiety giving me irregular heart rate / used to avoid getting into how I really feel about this now I see how fickle life can be and so it can’t wait / shoulda been the person there to hold me on my dark days.”

Alongside the revelatory songwriting on the project, and in spite of the introversion suggested in its title, the musicality of the record is equally generous. From beginning to end, you’re pulled along on a vibrant tour of Simz’ thoughts, feelings, and influences. Filled to the brim with brass sections, strings, choirs, as well as switches to plucked guitars and electronic synths and chords, with exhilarating percussion throughout, the album defies categorisation with ease and conviction – soulful R&B, trap, classic hip-hop, rock, and everything in between lives here. Kicked off with an ominous marching band intro, the album delivers on that initial promise of a sensory feast. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ combines its intimate storytelling with ambitiously widescreen production. The grandiose orchestra introduction fanfares the weight of the moment, almost harking to those classic blockbuster movie theme tunes of 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, or Universal. It takes you straight to sticky carpets, faint popcorn aromas, and that comforting anticipation that precedes an immersive, cinematic experience. Simz laughs in agreement when I confess the comparison: “I wanted this album to be very visual. As much as it is an audio experience, I want people to be able to visualise and see it too, so it was important for me to keep that thread throughout the album. And obviously being very heavily inspired by film, concepts, and stories… it’s all the same thing man!” She lists off passionately, “Poems can easily be raps; raps can easily be stories; stories can easily be films, like they’re all linked and intertwined.”

And it’s not only true in this case, but also proven – Simz has adopted many modes of dramatic storytelling. From theatre at her local youth club to starring in dramas such as Youngers and Netflix’s Top Boy, to this year getting behind the camera to direct her own visual for single ‘Woman’. That multidisciplinary artistry translated neatly into the interludes woven into the project, narrated by The Crown’s Emma Corrin; mirroring the fantastical nature of some of the earlier album Stillness in Wonderland, Corrin serves as a spiritual guide, of sorts, through Simz’ journey of discovery. “I just thought she was sick,” Simz laughs, admitting, “Some days, I’d go to the studio and I wouldn’t even make music; I’d just watch The Crown. So it was cool to collaborate in that way, as opposed to being on screen.” Conscious of the sheer volume of her own voice on the project, Simz unpacks, “I knew I needed a voice to guide us through.”

The flow of the record is just as deliberate, Simz explains, “I think people usually put their jumpy tunes at the top of the album, which makes sense. But because of how dense the album is, we thought it would be better to have it story led in the beginning and then pick up the pace.” The shift is tangible about halfway through – just as you think you’ve grasped what the project is, it changes tack altogether. ‘Point and Kill’ sees Simz team up with London-based Nigeria-born artist Obongjayar for a self-assured Afrobeat-infused mantra about taking no prisoners and living unapologetically. Simz sings affirmingly: “I do as I want / I do as I like / I no watch face / I no fear nobody.” The same outlook bleeds through to the following track ‘Fear No Man’ too. To hear Simz morph her swagger and energy so effortlessly in ode to her roots is exhilarating. “It was cool to be able to channel [my Nigerian heritage] in some way through my sound, and even though it’s Afrobeat, it still sounds like me.” At other points in the record, Simz tries her hand at other genres too. Disco-tinged ‘Protect My Energy’ is a synth-heavy tune that does what it says on the tin, creating a light and infectious lullaby to wash away your worries, at once totally unexpected and perfectly timed in the sequence. ‘Rollin Stone’ erupts with grimy, techno edges, before changing course halfway through for a slowed trap style and a pitched-up Simz alter ego as she talks some of her most braggadocious bars yet. It’s a red-eye flight from the streets of North London to the boulevards of Atlanta, Georgia, in 10 seconds flat. “The first half was me going back to ’09 Simz, and then the second half is definitely my evil twin pulling up for a sec, even just trying a new way to use my voice and maybe just say some shit that you wouldn’t necessarily hear from me before,” she says with a touch of coyness.

What drives that experimental essence within Simz is a bold mix of freedom and necessity, “I have no choice,” Simz says. Having remained independent for her entire career, Simz is her own driving force most of the time, existing outside of label demands and requirements. “I think being independent for so long has forced me to step outside of a comfort zone that many wouldn’t dare, you know. I’ve never really had the…” she pauses for at least five seconds before gesturing wistfully at the air all around her and landing on the word “machiiiiine”, stretched out with heavy implicit quotation marks. She continues, “The way I’ve had to grow my career and audience has been a totally different route to someone who’s been signed, maybe. So I’ve been forced to take these risks and try new things, but I’m also down for it.” That adaptable spirit is evident in her catalogue too, featuring collaborations with Gorillaz, alt-J, SAULT, Khalid, and endless other artists on the spectrum of sound. “As much as I like to keep other people excited, I also like to keep myself excited and on my toes, you know.” She even raves about a “bad-boy emo tune” she’s got in the vault that didn’t quite make the album: “It’s like, maybe I’m not sure how this is gonna turn out, but fuck it, I’m betting on myself.”

It’s that singular, fearless approach to the process that elevates Little Simz as one of the least predictable and most exciting artists making music today; one who remains unphased and authentic at a time when formulas and genre tropes are more encouraged than ever, in aid of streaming success and algorithms that dictate our listening habits. In the making of this project, Simz was intentional in seeking inspiration outside of those echo chambers, immersing herself in a host of timeless classics: “[Me and my producer] were taking in all these different artists and just deeping that, when Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Smokey Robinson were making these classics, they were basically my age, which I guess just put things into perspective.” On a wider artistic level, she cites Missy Elliott as one of the first and few women she ever saw herself in. “I remember feeling like rah, I can just tell she’s being herself. The styling, the videos, it all just felt like her.” The single ‘Woman’ was Simz’ own meditation on the beautiful variety of womanhood and all its definitions. She says, “I just need the next little Black girl that I once was to see that there are options. I can be super classy and femme and then next video I might be in a tracksuit.”

Is that what womanhood means to Little Simz, something unrestricted and free? In short, yes. “I guess I’m still figuring it out to be honest; I think that’s what this album’s about. I haven’t conquered anything; I haven’t conquered womanhood. I feel very comfortable in myself and in my skin; it’s just owning womanhood in my own way and not what anyone else has told me being a woman should look, feel, sound, or be like. But as I get older, it’ll probably change with the times. I’m still evolving with the word I think.” She pauses for a second before adding with a laugh, “but then it also might not even be that deep! Which I also have to tell myself.”

That contrast feels like a pretty apt way of summing up the inimitable Little Simz, at this point in time, on this particular project. There’s a metamorphosis still in process that contains complex layers and emotions. Her world is one to immerse yourself in and perhaps find your own reflection in, one that doesn’t prescribe answers so much as raises interesting questions. But in the very same breath, there’s an uncomplicated immediacy to her too, making really great music for you to find joy and peace in. Like most things in life, it is both incredibly deep and not that deep, simultaneously. Ultimately Simz says, “I just want people to know that you can always be yourself, and someone will love you for it.”

Photography Liz Johnson Artur

Styling Julie Velut 

Styling assistant Rowen Webb

Make up artist Nibras

Hair styling Chantelle Fuller

This article is taken from Port issue 29. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Portrait of an Artist

Aitor Throup discusses modern portraiture, analogue identity and his speed-warping production for The S.L.P’s new music video ‘Favourites’

Aitor Throup, Photography Charles Moriarty

When Aitor Throup’s mother, a doctor from Buenos Aires, took him and his sister to one of her University’s medical lectures, one might not assume the formative impact this would have on his career as an artist, fashion designer and creative director.

The British artist is propelled by an intrigue in human anatomy and the body in motion, unravelling the anatomical processes in almost everything — developing new ideas of modern portraiture and exploring an antagonism between nature and the digital.

His fashion design spans collections for G-Star Raw, C.P. Company and he has showcased selected work from a 2 season collaboration with Stone Island, ‘Modular Anatomy’ and ‘Articulated Anatomy’, at the V&A. Throup’s costume design ranges from high-grossing production ‘The Hunger Games’ to Wayne McGregor’s ‘Autobiography’, a dancework exploring memory. In 2014, he created a ‘death veil’ mask for Flying Lotus’s tour, a CGI constructed portrait of Damon Albarn and directed the film ‘A Portrait of Noomi Rapace’. Creative director to rock band Kasabian and Damon Albarn, Aitor Throup’s artistic medium is in constant flux.

“I consider myself a storyteller” he tells us. And indeed, working within the limitations and challenges of every story, he has an aptitude for deconstructing and reconstructing identity across artwork, filmography and fashion design.

And now, in his production for The S.L.P.’s new music video ‘Favourites’, Throup explores new speed-warping technology as a compelling but discomforting accompaniment to the glitchy sounds of Sergio Lorenzo Pizzorno’s first single. Examining social identity in the age of online dating, Pizzorno’s track featuring Little Simz, provides a platform from which Throup engages with our digital anatomy and DNA, employing laborious pre and post-production methods to form a modern portrait of the artist. The debut album, for which Throup completed the entire art direction,  unravels the identity of an established artist, known for his role as guitarist and song-writer for Kasabian (currently between albums), and reforms Sergio Lorenzo Pizzorno in a new light. 

Port spoke to Aitor Throup about this speed-ramping process, perceived identity in the digital age and the artist’s anatomical gaze.

Sergio Lorenzo Pizzorno, ‘Favourites’

What was the initial inspiration for the video? Is there any particular source of filmography / filmmaker you take inspiration from?

I felt that this video was the perfect platform to try the technique for the first time, as that in itself reflects the newness of Sergio’s solo project. I wanted to project this element of risk all around the project. The idea for the video itself though, as most times I work directly with artists, was for it to be a sort of portrait of the artist. I’m very interested in the concept of portraiture, and I have explored it through unconventional pieces before. I made a mask for Flying Lotus, a forensically reconstructed digital skull for Damon Albarn, and a sculpting process film (and sculpture) for Noomi Rapace. For Sergio, the portrait spans from the artwork and, of course, the video of the ‘Favourites’ single, through to the press shots, and eventually the whole album artwork and campaign. I wanted to bring to life this transformation, this transition, not only from ‘Kasabian Serge’ but also from ‘Sergio’ himself.

It was important that he became this character which was ultimately an exaggerated, almost cartoonish version of himself. The dream state superhero version of himself. I even suggested to him that he doesn’t call himself by his full name — but rather, a distilled version of himself, whilst retaining authenticity. I’ve always liked how rappers have a poetic ability to give themselves this dual persona through a simply crafted moniker. I suggested ‘The S.L.P.’ and honestly, it’s my favourite part of my whole creative contribution to the project. It’s like the perfect rebranding. The face paint and glitter I see as his superhero mask. It’s an expression of him just going for it, expressing himself, and challenging the conventions or expectations of what he should look or sound like. It’s a metaphor for having fun and taking risks with his music, but still being mature and sophisticated. The more we grow up, the more we should remember to think like children — to be free.

From what I can understand about the process, it involves reconstructing the original soundtrack for Sergio to be able to lip sync to and then reassembling it all post-production. Can you expand a little on this process? Was it difficult to do? How long did it take you?

The best way to describe it is that you take the audio track and you decide which parts are going to be sped up by 33%, and which moments are going to be slowed down by approximately 800%. The sped up parts of the track mean that if it’s performed at that speed and captured at 33 frames per second, it will play back (at 25 fps) at the normal tempo of the song — yet the performer’s movements will seem slightly unnaturally slow. When the performer gets to the super slowed down moments, he then slows his performance to match the track, which after a few seconds return to the faster speed.

In the edit though, all of this madness begins to make sense, and the reconstruction process begins. It’s a very laborious process of matching key lip-sync frames, then figuring out the exact sections which are super sped up (speed-ramped) in order to reconnect the visual to the audio track. This speed ramping process needs to be done manually though, through ‘frame cutting’ in order to curate the motion transitions. Speeding through footage is basically cutting frames out — but we chose to select exactly which individual frames we were cutting to have more control over the flow of action. It was like crafting the piece by hand — very, very laborious. I would say that the whole process took approximately 1 month in terms of execution, but timeless hours, days, weeks before that.

‘Favourites’ Film Still

The track itself is concerned with the effects of our digital age, the construction of identity and the ephemeral nature of social media. Can you elaborate a little on why this track, in particular, was chosen to be treated with this speed-warping technique?

I wanted to challenge the viewer’s perceptions and even expectations. I wanted to create something that looks very real and raw — analogue I guess — that eventually contributes to a clashing identity based on digital repetition and manipulation. Sergio was always talking about a tinder date gone wrong. This really got me thinking about identity in the digital age and the concept of identity in general, as it seems a perfect conceptual framework for launching the solo career of an established artist. The speed-warping technique in the context of this song really lends itself to help the viewer question whether what they’re seeing is ‘real’ or not — maybe it’s a quiet way to even suggest that we question even reality itself every now and again.

You have talked about the production process as “replicating nature through art”. How so?

I believe that nature is almost like a book of recipes. There’s a recipe for a tree, or a mountain, or a cat, or a human being — but there are all these variables in the creation process that mean that every single time a new one is made it’s a completely unique example of the original ‘archetype’. I believe in creating the recipe, and in gathering the best ingredients. In my work I’m often designing concepts and processes, rather than the final outcome. This means that the result has an innate sense of authenticity. At a subconscious level you sense that what you are seeing is, in part, the result of a layered process — that at some point the artist relinquished control, in order for the result to be as organic as possible.

The effect produced is a subtle discomfort — we’re not quite sure what is ‘wrong’ or different and time seems to move both fast and slow. Glitching is an almost human aspect of the digital world — a malfunction that cannot be explained. What did you want Sergio Pizzorno’s listeners and viewers to take away from such glitchy and time-warping visuals?

When I work on a music video I suppose I’m creating a portrait of the song itself (as well as of the artist in most cases). When I first heard the track I loved it because it challenges the conventional structure of a pop song. When I started dissecting the structure for the purpose of the video it became even more confusing. So I suppose that my intention with the aesthetic and visual tempo of the video was for the viewer to feel the song even more, to bring out sonic elements visually throughout. I had always talked to Sergio throughout the process of him being in the studio about this being a character version of himself — not him as a person. So I wanted this video to convey Sergio inside his own head, in his own world. It’s supposed to feel like it’s not in the real world. That’s why the speed-warping process lends itself well to this piece — it feels like slightly different laws of physics apply in this dream state.

Your previous work is concerned with the body and you have talked about “creating anatomically”. I understand you were born to a family of doctors —  is this what sparked your interest in human anatomy? Do you think this plays a part in the music video with Sergio?

When I was growing up in Buenos Aires until I was seven years old my mother was training to become a doctor. I have very vivid memories of her taking my sister and I to big medical lectures at University. I remember all these incredible medical books all around the house. I would dare myself to flick through the pages to look through all the intense imagery. I guess that I somehow was desensitised to that kind of imagery, and I started to build a curiosity towards the human body and anatomy in general. I wasn’t the kid who was deconstructing and reconstructing toys — instead I was looking through medical books which deconstructed the human body. I have always drawn, it has been the one constant in my life, and I suppose that my drawings became the platform for me to apply this anatomical information. I became obsessed with depicting the body in motion, and developing characters. Years later, growing up in England as a teenager, I began to get interested in clothes, and my drawn characters became more and more detailed. Unbeknown to me, at the time I was designing garments directly based on the human anatomy in motion. It took me 5 years of studies to make sense of this.

Ultimately, when I create anything I do so anatomically. Not just in the literal sense of thinking of the human body first, but actually I aim to create things that possess their own anatomy. A basic anatomy for creation is to start with a reason, then for this to inform a process, which eventually results in a final product (outcome). Just like with the anatomy of a body, the outer visible layer looks and behaves the way it does because of a complex system of reasons underneath and before it. So in that sense of course the video for ‘Favourites’ is an anatomical video piece.

The S.L.P’s debut album launches August 30th 2019