Album Review: Little Simz – NO THANK YOU

[Forever Living Originals/AWAL; 2022]

Little Simz’s 2021 album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was a sprawling and complicated treatise on identity, purpose, and internal conflict. It found her tackling contrasting personality traits and the ways in which she approached her own notoriety. Bombastic and lush at times, it also allowed her room to explore more minimalist atmospheres when called upon, resulting in a record that felt like an amalgam of dozens of influences and was both ramshackle and meticulously designed. No one else could have made that record except for her. Aided by producer inflo – one of the architects behind avant-R&B outfit Sault – she discovered power in transparency, offering up the intimate details of her psyche without placing much distance between her innermost thoughts and her audience.

She continues to break down the barriers between artist and listener on NO THANK YOU, an album as experimental in its own ways as Introvert and as aggressive in its fury as some moments found on 2019’s GREY Area. There’s a refinement of both technique and theme showcased, giving Simz the ability to surround herself with both minimalism and bombast, each aesthetic working to support the intensely personal narratives found across the record. Looking back, you can hear a progression from the raw nerve ambition of GREY Area through Introvert’s rhythmic density and passing on to NO THANK YOU, a subtle shift toward curated production and raw lyrical revelation. Which isn’t to say that her earlier records didn’t have those things, but they feel far more present and deliberate here.

Running once more in complete sync with inflo, these songs are some of Simz’s most personal and most vitriolic, masked in measured rhythms and encased in the wrath of someone who’s too tired to give a fuck. Her ability to tear down the foundations of the status quo is fascinating and truly breathtaking to behold. She’s seen too much and been given too little to care what any will ever think of her.

Opening with “Angel”, a tribute to model Harry Uzoka who passed away in 2018, the album doesn’t stomp from the gates – it upends our assumptions by offering something akin to solace in the form of this moving dedication. But even here, she’s hacking away at the supports. Digging into the guts of the recording industry, she storms: “Why did I give you the keys to authorize shit on my behalf? / Now I’m scarred and mortified / What did I expect from those livin’ the corporate life?”

But on “Gorilla”, we get the full Simz theatricality, with horns announcing her arrival before she lays out the ups and down, the braggadocio and insecurity, that comes from offering yourself up for public scrutiny. Between shout outs to Mac Miller (“rest in peace to Mac Miller”) and her previous album (”introvert / but she ain’t timid”), the track cuts a cathartic profile, one that refuses to back down from anything while also being acutely aware of its own ability to wring out some truth from the homogeny of the daily grind. She’s releasing all this pent-up frustration and creative hunger and awareness of inequity as this volatile emotional barrage, a welcome jolt of passion that further cements her as one of the most exciting and insightful artists working now.

An album highlight, “Silhouette” is a propulsive roar that finds her railing against situations, people, and even the past – especially when any of those things try to get in the way of her self-realization. The drums are wiry, energetic and compliment the gospel echoes later on in the song. Eventually, martial beats arise and wordless harmonies drift along in the background, setting up the repeated mantra of “time will heal you / find your way / find your faith / God’s with you always”, a bit of light among the darker certainties expressed here.

“No Merci” continues to explore the complicated relationship between fame and anonymity, between introverted necessities and extroverted impulses. She calls out the double standard for Black performers, saying, “Givin’ ‘em our truth and they gave us blackface.” Why is truth only accepted when it’s convenient for those receiving it? Simz shines a fierce light onto the industry’s practice of diminishing artists whose perspectives veer away from what is considered safe or typical.

She follows that track with “X”, a contender for one of the best songs of the year, and a haunting breakdown of decades of injustice and cultural degradation. She peppers the martial beat with lines like “how many times did we march with no shoes on?” and “if the law ain’t for us, who’s policin’ the police?” Strings swell in the background while chorale harmonies drift around, and then horns burst in, bringing the dawn – or at least, some illumination on the darkness that’s been forced on countless generations. It’s all so dizzying and stirs some great volcanic urge in your chest. She wants you to realize that the future is in your hands, no matter how many times people have tried to take away your personal agency. It can be reclaimed, and these biased structures must be pulled down if any progress is ever to be made.

She veers inward on “Broken”, one of the most raw and intimate portraits of emotional devastation you’re likely to have heard all year. The song opens with multitracked vocals repeating the lines “feel you’re broken, and you don’t exist / when you feel you’re broken, and you cannot fix it”. The beat is fragile, accompanied by string and piano, providing just the right amount of support for Simz’s voice. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, a song for anyone who’s ever felt pulled apart by the turbulence of daily life and the frayed relationships we cling to for help. She dips into aqueous R&B rhythms on “Who Even Cares”, a diatribe on unrealistic expectations and the pressure felt when no one cares to see the effort it takes to just hold your head above the waterline.

NO THANK YOU is both reckoning and emotional care – it’s the culmination of what Simz has been working toward since she first started making music. There’s an endearing humbleness here, an acute awareness of insecurities as well as strengths. She doesn’t want to be the voice of any particular movement; she wants millions of voices united in support of one another. And on NO THANK YOU, she provides the blueprints on how those voices might begin their synchronous rise. Despite the vicious asides cast at social norms, industry bigotry, and the myriad frustrations she’s experienced, the album does ultimately present a hopeful future, even when exposing the day-to-day dangers threatening to envelop us, especially those which we might be unaware of. We can succumb to these snares or rise above together. This record is Little Simz’s way of offering direction and emotional support, and we can either choose to grow in our understanding alongside her or be resigned to wonder what we could have done differently.