Everyone has their own tolerance for motivation. Which is to say, we all want to be motivated, but differently. I have met people for whom a bookshelf is a bible, an abstract painting a signpost. Others buy crystals, attend lectures or stick Muhammed Ali quotes to their toilet seat. You might even ask a friend to blow a whistle in your face every 30 seconds, dressed in a coach’s black and white (barely a stretch for our wardrobe these days). Little Simz’s fourth album takes a very direct approach to throwing us out of bed. It is self-help as mantra, not interpretation. One of the UK’s most effortless rappers has made a record that doesn’t tell stories as much as it gives you the blurb. Sometimes I Be Introvert, a frequently impressive piece of music, strains to capture the complex world that Simz wants to fix. Musically, there’s much to adore. Lyrically, you may leave feeling flatter, as if Christopher Hitchens has invited you to tea and talked about the weather.
You wouldn’t know it from the heraldic ‘Introvert’, a rush of war, thunder and clenched fists. “I’m not into politics,” she tolls, “but I know it’s dark times.” The orchestral charge is irresistible. She has written huge songs before on 2017’s Stillness In Wonderland, but they’ve never sounded like this: violins, brass and somewhere far back an ooooo like a teetering spaceship. Simz’s apocalypse is wide but personal. She wants to “take winner’s flight” amidst environmental collapse and race protests yet mourns not being there for someone when their grandmother passed away – a kernel of the album’s obsession with duality. Should Simz focus on the big picture or the small? Is she meant to talk about carnage on the news, or the flicker of blades on a North London street? The private woman (often quiet, insular) and her rising profile (demanding grand gestures) are circling one another.
For an artist who sold out her first major shows at 21 years of age, Simz has never shied from expectation – touring with Gorillaz, charming Stateside DJs, acting in Top Boy, comparing herself to Jay Z and Shakespeare. “Learned from Ye, then went and touched the sky!” she yelled memorably on 2019’s ‘Boss’, toppling us with impeccable flow, claiming pre-eminence in a divided Britain. As a rapper, her technique usually stands out more than what she’s saying.
You can hear it on ‘Two Worlds Apart’, a dextrous body pop accompanied by koalas, the Bahamas and cherry wine. The song hangs on several couplets of 14 syllables, a blasé stroll through the fruits of fame, before loosening up, referencing how much time it took to nail her timing. On ‘Standing Ovation’, however, Simz is incendiary, riding epic drum rolls and end-of-the-earth chants. She knows exactly when to pause, step back or work on her jab. The emotional range recalls Stormzy or Noname’s superlative Room 25. We even see a romantic side to our protagonist: the tender ‘I See You’, coloured rose by one of two features from Cleo Soul. “Would you still by my biggest fan,” Simz asks, “if I cancelled all of my dates?” Her voice is subdued, careful, if not date talk then the tone you might use on a walk in autumn with someone you hardly dare to love.
So, the album is a consistent pleasure to play. It only feels flimsy when you begin to think of memorable lines. And really, there aren’t many. In her quest to self-actualise, Little Simz risks sounding like a motivational coach – one who doesn’t get a whole lot of bookings.
Sometimes I Be Introvert plays into this didacticism with recurring interludes from the actress Emma Corrin (Diana from The Crown). At first, they are quirky and Disney-ish, a fairy godmother guiding us towards manifestation: “Feelings allowed you to be well-balanced, perspective gave you foresight. The top of the mountain is nothing without the climb.” Yet they start to grate and cloud more interesting reflections on what it’s like to be an introvert in the public eye. If they manifest anything, it’s the skip button. Which is a shame, because the arrangements are dense and delighted by choral drama. It is rare to find a rap album that takes an orchestra this seriously, letting it hold the floor for several minutes. The cliches just keep clanging. If she feels stuck between a rock and a hard place, why stop there? “Patience is a virtue,” we are told. “Trust your intuition, but get out of your head.” Jay Z? Jay from Big Mouth could write better advice, and he shags pillows.
There is also a lack of specificity, harming the stories Simz is clearly trying to tell about those she cares about and the heavy foot of institutional violence. An obvious exception is ‘Little Q Pt.2’, told from the perspective of her cousin, who was stabbed in the chest a few years ago and fell into a coma. “I could have been the reflection that he hated,” Simz/Q ruminates, “the part of him he wishes God didn’t spend time creating.” The black-on-black resentment is raw, right in our faces. A soulful outro spreads its wings to lift the song above the fucking mayhem.
But then you can merely shrug at the duff bravado of ‘Speed’ or ‘Point & Kill’, greeting the groove while thinking, Okay, I need more here. We can’t stop her. We know that. She has come far from almost nothing. We know this. A sizable wedge of Sometimes . . . relays the same information: I can’t believe where I am, look, it’s a million miles from home, it was hard, it’s hard for a lot of people, but look, I’m not over there anymore, I’ve made it, wow, I used to sing on shitty mics, but now I don’t, I can’t believe it. And that’s fine. Some listeners will surely get a kick out of her tea-towel sloganeering. Personally, I’d have liked to scratch at more varied topics, using the empowerment theme as a stick instead of a club.
We’d be remiss to mention tracks like ‘Point & Kill’ without commenting on the absurdly good production. At least half (maybe more) of the record’s success lies with Inflo, the London polymath who takes drums, guitar, piano, harp and conductor duties, boosting everything to an epic register. There are almost too many instrumental highlights to count. Witness ‘Standing Ovation’ beating fresh fills on every verse. The carnival atmosphere on ‘Fear No Man’, the boom and clatter of his snare. Or the jazz keys on ‘How Did I Get Here’ offering a spine for Simz to massage. The syncopated percussion waits patiently, granting space to the opening lines and backing vocals. Inflo scored an Ivor Novello award with Michael Kiwanuku, and co-wrote GREY, the most rewarding Simz release. His inclusion on any credits list is something to rub hands over.
Lyrical quibbles tend to subside when the album’s nuts and bolts work so well, as on ‘Protect My Energy’s dirty disco or the firecracker opener. There is a moment, though, where music and poetry raise the bar in unison. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ describes a relationship with a near-absent father, more of a sperm donor than a dad, a guitar dotting – never settling – around the left and right channels. Little Simz still prays for him: “I’m just using my voice, hope it’ll have an effect / He was once just a boy, often I seem to forget.” Perhaps her strength, her ability to ignore the scab on a wound, is because of their shared DNA. Unless she faces him, he’ll arrive in her dreams. And those dreams are growing. Introverts, after all, examine themselves before the universe. Even if their words could be stranger, they are never wasted.