There’s no city quite like London. Ever since a raging fire destroyed the city in the 17th century, Great Britain’s capital has seen a great variety of architectural styles colliding. Gothic palaces and Victorian buildings are found right next to brutalist giants and futuristic skyscrapers. This makes for an often jarring clash of aesthetics and atmospheres, characterizing a city that is of the past but also with ambitions of the far out future. Maybe that’s why the records that manage to summon the city’s vibrant, sleepless energy are those that chronicle reflective glass and murky puddles – records like Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City, Burial’s Untrue or 2814’s Birth of a New Day: album’s framed in eternal twilight.
In their tradition, Little Simz‘s breakout release GREY Area managed to embody London’s restlessness. Even if she snarled “Never been a punk” on the album’s opener, the record felt like it borrowed elements of the genuinely British genre (sorry, New Yorkers), understood the dynamics of dark New Romantic synth-hooks, the appeal of neo soul and cultural relevancy of world music that comes with living in a metropolis. It’s a record that managed to contain the vibes of X-Ray Spex, Radiohead, The Streets, FKA Twigs, Dizzee Rascall and Gorillaz, all while simultaneously documenting the vibrant Black music scene thriving in the UK and showcasing the immense talent and confidence of a young Black rapper in a genre all too often noted for its sexist politics. In other words: it was a milestone.
But milestones are heavy and expectations for GREY Area’s follow up were as high as the Gherkin. Really, what could Simz do but switch directions? If her last album sounded like Southeast London, then her new album is all West End theatricality. Sometimes I might be introvert is filled with choirs, occasional string sections, a narrator of questionable origin and autobiographical lyrics, it jumps in genre and tone, exudes charisma and creative will. Sneakily hiding a backronym of Simz first name in the title (‘Simbi’), Sometimes I might be introvert truly feels like a personal statement. With its 65 minutes, numerous interludes and 19 total tracks, it’s reminiscent of the maximalist millennial rap albums that cost large sums of money and dominated the collective memory and airplay charts for years to come. Yet it also creates a thick forest of ideas that distract, leaving the album to ultimately sound more high street than back alley.
Sometimes I might be introvert shines when Simz expands on the neo-soul backdrop of GREY Area, which oftentimes lends a cinematic 70s tone to tracks like “Woman”, “Two Worlds Apart” and “How did you get here”. The slightly sudden sample edits come as contradictions to Simz impeccable flow, lending a slight edge to songs that could easily feel a little too well groomed. The absolute high points of the record come in the form of sudden genre experimentation. “I See You” sounds as if a swarm of tropical birds found its way into the studio to underscore this touching ballad whose lyrics are rich in fragile intimacies (“Would you take me as I am, overlook all my mistakes? / Though correct me when I’m wrong, humble me, put me in my place?”) and “Protect my Energy” is a surprise electro-funk gem. There’s also “Fear No Man”, which dives headfirst into African rhythms and world music territory.
Other experiments are not as successful. “Rollin Stone” presents a drop mid-track to descend fully into grime, but it disrupts the flow and seems a little misplaced. Opener “Introvert” is, at six minutes, exhausting in all its shiny orchestral aggression. And then there are the interludes, spoken by actor Emma Corrin, that are rich in operatic texture and stage play gestures, narrating Simz’ internal growth and her wrestling with class clashes – other times, it’s just a mantra repeated via choir. It’s a bit fruitless to criticize interludes on a rap album, but in the case of Sometimes I might be introvert, the shift in tone is at times so drastic and the sonic detours so disruptive that the whole seems to lose focus. This is also true with some of the tracks whose musical backdrops pale in comparison to Simz’ lyrics and flow: “Point and Kill” is a little unmemorable and “Speed” sounds like a GREY Area retread.
But even when the songs themselves fall short, Simz shines as one of the best rappers of her time. Chronicling her insecurities as a young black woman, her struggle with the music business and deep emotional growth, her bars are carefully constructed and delivered with tons of attitude. Even if “Rollin Stone” might not be the strongest track here, her characterization of celebrity lifestyle is disarming and funny (“Huh, pull up at your spot, they’re throwin’ roses at my feet / Fuck you mean? In the presence of a queen / Bad bitch say that she wanna know what’s underneath / I can show you things in private, know I hate to cause a scene, yeah”). Still, there’s a distance in those tracks centred on corporate critique that is absent in the more emotional songs. An odd choice for closer, “Miss Understood” still has Simz sound more invested, her voice moulding a history of familial struggle into what is both an apology and a defence.
It is odd that there are both so many and so few things that can be said about Sometimes I might be introvert. It successfully delves into Simz’ psyche and reveals her insecurities and contrasts those with the tough persona she has created to survive as a young Black woman in the environment of the super wealthy corporate music business. It reveals heartache and tenderness while also presenting robust aesthetics she identifies as part of her identity. It combines her past with her future – but also dwells on the present for too much. Is there really a need for all those interludes, for the theatrics, the orchestra, the posh narrator? Is Simz afraid of losing her way in an environment that is the very opposite of her personal heritage?
“Point and Kill”, which Simz intended as an homage to her Nigerian roots, would be a good argument for her quest for authenticity, but it can’t mask that there are quite a few songs here that exhaust due to their glamorous pomp and that lack homogeneity with preceding songs. In this, the album reflects on a different London than its predecessor: where GREY Area was all about Chinese restaurants, squats, dark back alleys and illegal warehouse clubs, Sometimes I might be introvert is about office buildings, record shops, bedrooms and stage productions. It’s daring and conceptual, but lacks physicality, unity and focus. It’s jarring, but hey, so is London.