It’s an early Thursday at VIBE‘s Manhattan offices, and Simbi Ajikawo—who’s quietly propped up against a glass conference room table with her elbows—is visibly tired. The London rapper, globally known as Little Simz, is slender and tall, outfitted comfortably in ripped skinny jeans, black Nikes, a zipped navy hoodie and a ball cap fitted snugly over her long hair. Comfy wear, basically. Her voice is calm and even during the hellos. She’s polite and alert during our conversation, smiling plenty, but you can tell this is will be a long day for her, her manager and her cameraman. We’re just the first stop of a hectic promo day.
What time did you go to sleep last night? I ask her. She locks eyes with her manager, Eddie, laughs and replies, “What sleep?” It’s her sixth time in New York, so there’s no real need to sightsee, but instead of catching up on zzz‘s, she’s busy bringing American’s up to speed on her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. Judging by the sound of the 10-track project, we have every reason to welcome the album with open arms.
From the opener “Persons” to standouts like “Wings,” “Lights” and “God Bless Mary” right down to the closer song “Fallen,” we hear menacing, controlled tones, infectious flows and nimble lyricism over lush instrumentals, as she explores the highs and lows of life through different perspectives. For the skeptics who still need more evidence about this emerging voice, Simz has already gotten the stamp of approval from your favorite rappers both old and new. Snoop Dogg, Andre 3000, J. Cole, Yasiin Bey and Kendrick Lamar have all personally let her know that they’re fans of her movement. And for that she is grateful.
Here, Little Simz opened up about memorable moments from the recording process of her album, how fame has impacted her life and why the world needs to be more receptive of UK rap.
VIBE: Welcome to New York. Is this your first time here?
Little Simz: This is like my sixth. It was mainly business. Just came to do some promo for album, some press stuff, do some shooting. This one’s a short trip.
Have you performed here before?
What would you say the energy is like here compared to back home?
I feel as though because I’m from London and I do a lot of London shows, people feel like they can see me anywhere, so it’s not an urge to go. Whereas when I come over here, I feel like people grasp the opportunity because they don’t know when I’m going to be back, so they show me the most love. Every time I perform here it’s been wild. I’ve got a special place in my heart for New York.
What was your favorite show that you did here?
Probably my headline show [at Baby’s All Right]. I think that was the last time I was out here in Brooklyn. That was such a sick show that we had. Jimi Tents and Tunji Ige opened up for me. It was just tight. The energy, the vibe, and the venue was sick as well.
A lot of times America loves the Adeles, Sam Smiths and R&B singers from the UK, but we take a little bit longer to get into rap, grime and hip-hop. Do you see this and why do you think that is?
It’s a mixture of things. I feel like all those other genres for me are very… audience specific. Whereas your Adeles and Sam Smith appeal to more of a wider audience, very broad. It’s very easy on the ears as opposed to going and listening to a hip-hop song from the UK. You actually have to make the effort to want to embrace it. Those other ones are easy to hear on the radio. You hear them in McDonald’s and without you even thinking about it you already know the songs. It’s instilled in you without you ever having to go to YouTube to look it up. When it comes to my genre of music or my style, it takes for people to make more of an effort to want to give it a chance.
Where do you see the future of grime in America within the next few years? Especially because Skepta’s really getting a lot of traction. Do you think that’ll usher in a big movement?
Hopefully. If people continue to be more open and willing to give it a chance and hopefully it’ll continue to broaden and even just migrate to different areas of the world, not just the States. It just takes for people to be more open and willing enough.
How’s the reception been in other areas?
It’s been sick. Especially Europe has taken to me with open arms. They really embrace me. Everyone always looks to America as IT but Europe is also a goldmine and they appreciate music. Just the sound as opposed to this person’s famous. It’s just more about the music, and I like that because that’s what I’m about. Definitely places in Europe like Paris, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Oslo, just so many different places.
When was the first time you realized this is what you needed to be doing?
Probably when I was like 14 and I was like cool, this is what I want to do for… forever. For as long as I can. Because I really enjoy doing this and this is what I’ve been seeing my life being. This is what I can see myself doing in the future.
And you had a lot of support from your family?
No, my family has been holding me down from day [one]. They’ve been very active and supportive of my career and what I want to do.
Tell us a little about your album that’s coming out, where the concept came from and who we’ll be hearing when we listen to it.
My album is called A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. It’s a conceptual album and the main topic it kinda discusses is fame and how that can change up and starts to change the people around a person. It’s 10 songs, it’s not a long album. It’s an album you have to listen to in its entirety to understand what it’s about and to understand the story. I’m talking through many different perspectives. I’m talking through the eyes of a homeless man. I’m talking through the eyes of someone that’s rich and famous and has got everything. I’m talking through the eyes of a single mum that’s giving up her dream to have children. Just talking through many different perspectives. It’s tight. And the name as well kind of reminds me of a book or novel. It has that story feel, which I like.
Did you pull from specific people when you were thinking about those stories or were they fictional?
I definitely pulled from real life situations but kind of put my own take or view on it. Just made it more broad, so anyone can relate to it.
You mentioned that some songs tackle fame and how they’ve changed you and your surroundings. How has fame impacted you?
It’s changed me in the sense that I’ve become very aware. I’m just careful in terms of what I say to people and how I behave around people I’m not familiar with. I’m just a lot more aware of my actions because people, especially for the first time they’re meeting someone, you’re going to go off that first impression, so I’m just more careful about that. In terms of the people around me, I feel like they are very protective. They’re like, we got you. They don’t think twice. They’re very protective, actually.
That’s refreshing. You hear a lot of more jaded stories of people switching up on you after fame.
They’re very much like, be wary of this, be wary of that. Make sure you call your mom. They’ve just got my best interest.
Do you talk to your mom everyday?
On WhatsApp, yeah.
Who else is on the album?
There’s one feature from a band called The Hicks. They’re from London, and they’re featured on a song called “Gratitude.” It got its first play from Hugh Stevens on BBC Radio 1. And then production-wise, there’s The Hicks also. President Jeff Deezy, a producer on my label called OTG, Josh Arce my good friend, Tiffany Gouche from L.A., I think that’s it. There’s a bunch of different people from around the world, as well. It’s not like it was just London producers, some of them are from America, some of them are from Europe, but it all sounds cohesive.
Did you travel to those different places during the recording process?
No. With some of the songs, I’d been away in different countries and they’d play me that song and I took it home with me and done my thing. Nobody flew out to work with me. I’ve met Tiffany on many different occasions. We’ve worked together on various things, so that was cool. Same with all of them. I had really good relationships with all of them so that’s why it worked perfectly. And it was just easy, because we had worked before. The chemistry was already there.
So who’s on your collab wishlist for the next two years?
I would like to work with King. Snoop would be tight. And like, he’s from New Zealand, but Jordan Rakei, have you heard of him? Actually, Nick Hakim. He’s from New York actually. And then Kendrick [Lamar]. And then from the UK, a singer called Jamie Woon, Florence [Welch from Florence and the Machine], and Giggs.
You mentioned Kendrick in your list. What did you think of To Pimp A Butterfly?
What do you think of it?
Well then there you go [laughs]. I don’t even know, man. Everyone knows that Kendrick’s special. He’s so needed.
It was refreshing what he did with the album and how it didn’t sound like a good kid, M.A.A.D city part two.
I love that. Have no expectations, take it as is and I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it. Too many people have expectations. We were talking about this in the car. When I have expectations of things and it doesn’t end up how I want it to, I just feel disappointed and let down. I’m sick of feeling like that. So I’d rather just not have expectations and the outcome will be what it’s supposed to be. With Kendrick’s album, I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t expect a good kid part two at all. I was just going to take it as it is and just listen to what he said and then that’s it.
How did it feel knowing that you were on his radar as someone that’s killing it in London rap right now? To come from someone who himself is killing it globally?
Sick. That information is new to the world but I’ve met him on many occasions and he’s expressed this to me before. So it wasn’t like, as big as a shock as it was for eceryone else. But it was more so like, he really appreciates what I’m doing and there’s such a mutual respect. It’s almost like a friend telling you to keep doing it as opposed to like, ‘Oh my god it’s f**king big Kendrick Lamar.’ It was like an older cousin or something saying keep doing what you’re doing. And it was real. That was sick, man, and I will forever be grateful for that because he didn’t have to do that. No one told him to go on radio and talk about Little Simz.
Has anyone else reached out with words of support and encouragement?
Yeah, there’s been a few. J. Cole has been quite supportive. Andre 3000, I’ve met him once and he saw me at a show and expressed that. He liked what I was about and what I was doing. Snoop. Mos Def, Yasiin Bey. And Stormzy.
Oh man, when I went over to London, I saw people were going crazy for Stormzy.
Because he’s the guy!
I learned that. It was cool to see first hand what America is sleep on beyond our coasts.
We’re trying. Tell me your most memorable moment from the recording process of this album.
I think it was when I recorded, well not me personally, but I had a session with a person who plays cello called Izzi Dunn come in and she recorded live strings over some of the songs. I think that was so fun for me because I’d never done a session like that where it’s something specifically for my project. To have her come in and play over songs and I was almost directing her with what to do and what to play. It just felt cool. I like doing things that I haven’t done before and that’s a bit of a challenge. Because I don’t know anything about cello. I just know sound, so I know when something sounds good. But I couldn’t tell you play this note, I would just have to sing it to you. She just took to it and it just worked. It was sick. It was probably one of the best sessions I had in making this album.
Any personal favorite songs and ones you think the listeners will definitely love?
I really like “The Lights.” My favorite always changes, but right now I really like “The Lights.” I think the listeners would like either “Tainted” or “God Bless Mary.” Because of the sound on “Tainted,” it’s a sound that they’re familiar with when hearing me and they’d associate me with that sound more than anything else on the album. But then “God Bless Mary” because of its message and what it’s about and how sincere it is and heartfelt.
Lastly, what is one un-Googleable fact about Little Simz?
I’m actually thinking about my Wikipedia page. It’s actually documentation of my life. Hmm… I’ve never had a pet.
Really? Do you want one?
No. Well, maybe in the future. I don’t know if you’d find that on Google. I don’t think it’s interesting but it’s a fact.
‘A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons’ is out now on iTunes.