2018 was one of the biggest years for rap in America — from blockbuster artists to up-and-comers to the underground — and 2019 shows no sign of slowing and no shortage of new hip-hop. Take it as a sign of high praise that a voice from that other side of the Atlantic registers as vitally as Little Simz on Grey Area. “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day / Shakespeare on my worst days,” she intones over quavering, sustained strings (“Offense”). Pitch the tempo up and this flourish might sound practically Motown, up to and including a layered female vocal breakdown: “I said it with my chest and I don’t care who I offend / Ah ha.” The descending bass licks, compressed but intense, recall a far grimier genre, but it’s always Simz’s front-and-center vocal presence which allows disparate elements to meld perfectly. Even the at-first-goofy, pentatonic East Asian-meme of “101 FM” reveals something deeper, a lost childhood as described in the hook’s nostalgia: “In my Air Force one New Era hat / Playin’ PS2 / Crash Bandicoot and Mortal Combat.” The sexy R&B of “Selfish” is simply too well-rendered to dismiss as clichéd, and the melodramatic incantation of strings on “Venom” distills horror film soundtrack trappings into something surprisingly more menacing.
It’s clear, especially, from Chronixx’s Jamaican accent in the wistful refrain of “Wounds” that the LP aims at some kind of perfect fusion of sounds, a fitting representation of the cultural miasma that is London — an interesting inversion on much of rap’s regionality. That song, lyrically perched on the edge of criminal enterprising, ends with a question: “where you get a gun from? / I wonder if America or inna England.” Simz considers the jargon of violence universal within hip-hop but never comes across as reductionist or theoretical (as in the overreaching on Kendrick’s “Complexion”) — she deals in the here-and-now: “I just wanna do my ting and be free in this life / Blinded at times, can’t see in this life” (“Pressure”). On the hook of “Boss,” a hammy bar (“I’m a boss in a FUCKING dress”) gets transformed by the delivery — a psychotic, arrhythmic spit crying into the void. Here, its energy is picked up and sublimated by Simz into a robotic fast-rap flow, her accent and internal rhyme scheme transforming the bar into something far groovier. The pleasures of Grey Area are immediate, but never quite obvious.
Published as part of What Would Meek Do? | Issue 8