The anatomy of a Little Simz song doesn’t offer itself up easily. On the recent “Good For What,” a whir of tough North London bristle, the rapper born Simbiatu Ajikawo contemplates early successes. “Look at young Simbi in Vogue/Look at young Simbi in Forbes,” she says in the video, merrily skating through the streets of Los Angeles. “Well someone’s gotta do it right/Someone’s gotta open doors.” As British rap has found more footing in US markets over the last handful of years, taking a bigger share in the international mainstream—partially owed to a greater cross-cultural exchange among artists themselves—Simz has come to represent how music can best travel among divergent cultures in our increasingly globalized world.
One argument, familiar to anyone privy to the nativism of Donald Trump and his ilk, contends that globalization actually dilutes local cultures. In popularizing the customs of a given community, the thinking goes, these things in some way lose their truer essence. We’ve seen that argument play out with Drake, whose ardent obsession with UK culture has granted artists like Jorja Smith, Skepta, and Giggs more mainstream visibility in North America. Simz’s rise is, in part, a rebuke to that thinking, taking the independent route with the creation of her own label: she proves that the best conduit can still be the self, even when it’s away from home.
Metaphor or not, “Good For What” finds the young Brit looking back even as she pilots forward, taking solace in the palm-treed environs of Southern California but still every bit the girl who grew up under the metal skies of Islington. The music, all backbone and unflinching emotional lucidity, may have changed locations, but it’s remained unmistakably Simz, a posture that is no mere performance. “I was made for this shit,” she declares, over Astronote’s murky, atmospheric production. And later attests: “Cause this is bigger than you thought/Thought I was finished, let me give you more.”
“More” has never been a problem for Simz. She is a covetous creator, having collaborated with artists like reggae revivalist Chronixx, Rihanna songwriter Bibi Bourelly, and soul experimentalist Iman Omari; toured with the Gorillaz; and dropped 11 projects since 2010 (a blend of albums, mixtapes, and EPs). There’s been no disconnect in Simz’s presence stateside, either. When she initiated one of the several freestyle cyphers at the BET Hip-Hop Awards in mid October, she did so as the only black woman artist hailing from the UK. With a pinch of English cool, the 23-year-old rapper spoke of her adolescence and the tirelessness it took to overcome the likelihood of turning into just another cultural data point. “Who’d thought this would happen/ teachers would tap me funny when I said I’d make it from rapping,” she offered in the minute-long verse.
Though the cypher included brash ascendants like Detroit’s Tee Grizzley and Atlanta sing-rap polymath 6lack, Simz held court like a seasoned pro: dynamic and levelheaded, if exceedingly expeditious in her layered delivery. Her authority carries little surprise to anyone who has followed the young rapper’s continued climb, gaining traction in the US since issuing her seductively ruminative E.D.G.E. EP on SoundCloud in 2014 (the breakout track “Devour” has since amassed 3.65 million streams).
Still, the most radical element of Simz’s arsenal may be her grandiosity. A song like “Good For What”—with its puffed-up moxie and tales of shrewd diligence—provides another roadway into her appeal by better refining the many avatars she dons so effortlessly, accentuating the social realities of black women. Simz’s sustained output has also allowed her to be even more elastic in her selfhood. There is a vulnerable intensity alive in her work; it satiates but jars the soul, lines so ordinary you forget how much power they hold in one’s own life. “My imperfections make me who I plan to be” she sang on “Doorway + Trust Issues,” from January’s Stillness In Wonderland (the deluxe edition, which features seven new songs including “Good For What,” releases November 4).
The final shot in the video for “Good For What” zeroes in on Little Simz, standing by herself in the middle of a nondescript LA street, the line “Look at me, once again I was made for this shit” looping in the background. The message is unmissable: no matter where she’s at, it’s best we leave the translation up to her.
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