Let Us Give Thanks For Little Simz
The Mercury Prize winning rapper returns with another soulful classic of UK hip hop
After dominating the UK music scene in 2021 with her epic, bombastic LP “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”, Little Simz (real name Simbi Ajikawo) wasted no time in returning with another magnificent expression of her partnership with producer Inflo. While her latest LP “No Thank You” was released on streaming services in December 2022, the physical formats, including a range of vinyl variants, finally surfaced in mid-June 2023.
Before turning to the exceptional Little Simz herself, it is fair to focus on two other chief collaborators on this stylish, emotive record. Dean Josiah Cover (aka Inflo) is the producer who has exceeded even his incredible musical achievement on the Mercury Prize-winning “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”, while orchestrator Rosie Danvers has once again found the power and delicacy to successfully complement rap and electronic sound with brass and strings.
I think the synthesis of these creative forces on “No Thank You” is even more coherent than on the previous LP; it is not hyperbolic to assert that this musical team rivals even Isaac Hayes for depth, imagination, emotion and musical innovation. Inflo plays drums, piano, bass, synths and guitar on these tracks, as well as writing credits on every single song and of course, main production credit. It should also be recognised that this polymath is responsible for producing the prolific output of the Sault collective, Michael Kiwanuka, Cleo Sol and of course all the previous Little Simz releases that have led to this groundbreaking record.
Little Simz should need no introduction, but if her massive success in the UK has not spread far and wide just yet, she is one of the most iconic and multi-faceted UK hip hop artistes of the 21st century. Her poetic and languid rapping is distinctively monotonal, but her delivery expresses strength and vulnerability, defiance and insight, clarity and clipped London vowels. Her lyrical themes range from intimate family studies to justified outrage at an unjust, patronising world. Her lyrical work on “No Thank You” is as powerful as ever, and her unique vocal style has never been better captured. This is an artist who sets herself dizzying goals and seems to effortlessly exceed them. I can honestly say I have never been disappointed by a single one of her works. If musical performers can be deemed to have an “Imperial Phase”, then Little Simz has captured, sustained and enlarged her empire without putting a foot wrong.
This double-LP begins with “Angel”. There is a dreamy, hushed vocal sample and understated drums - a stripped-down backing minimal enough to leave space for Simz’ rapid-fire verses - but the seductive chorus arrives courtesy of the sublime vocalist Cleo Sol. Cinematic strings bring sweetness and airiness. “Gorilla” blasts in with brazen brass and a sinuous double bass groove, with Simz sporting a much more braggadocious vocal tone. When the choir burst in for a verse, the full potency of this track takes hold - but the tastefully minimal usage of these dense elements prevents the track from becoming crowded. “Silhouette” rounds off side A with another strolling, shuffling jam that floats around Simz’ syncopated verses, but the potency of the darkening choral elements and strings extend deeper into the composition. Another sumptuous vocal line from Cleo Sol leads into a coda of looming brass and strings with a luscious choral line “time… will… help… you… find… a… way…” and is reminiscent of the classic sound of Soul II Soul.
Side B opens with “No Merci”, a low-slung 808 jam lightened with violins which demonstrates the value of Inflo’s minimal arrangements. Instead of combining elements in a dense composition, Inflo instead creates discrete sections of each song where Simz takes a rest and the orchestra or choir step in to chime against Cleo Sol’s soulful vocal or a squidgy synth. “X” opens with a haunting choral theme and trappy, snapping drums. As the strings swell and the choir reaches higher, you are urged to consider that the cinematic compositions developed by Inflo and Danvers would have been ideal material for a stylish 1960’s spy thriller. “X” perhaps eclipses even the title track of the previous LP as a spine-tingling movie theme - when will there finally be a Little Simz Bond theme?
“Heart On Fire” is a gorgeous, slinky groove with exquisite male backing vocals softly breathing out an ascending harmonic sequence. Tasteful strings, a bassline in counterpoint descending harmonic sequence to the vocal theme, a sublime choir section - this track is a compositional triumph and an authentic autobiographical statement. “Broken” seems to be a companion piece to the previous track, this time with a haunting girl’s choir circling round a repeated phrase, harps and strings carrying the heart of the track, rimshot and bass guitar holding down the rhythm, while Simz invokes self-belief and personal control. Once again, an extended string coda oozes romance and cinematic imagery - the gritty struggles narrated by Simz fade away into an interlude that brings to mind Bernard Herrmann or John Barry, a musical accompaniment to a screen kiss.
Side D yells into life with “Sideways”, perhaps the solitary moment on the album where the samples create an unbalanced sound. Stripped right back to a rap line outlining human struggles over a solitary kick drum, the sweet backing vocals are chopped with a brittle cry that feels too harsh. “Who Even Cares” leads with a syrupy, deeply-phasered chord progression on Fender Rhodes, the welcome return of Cleo Sol, and a sweet surprise from Simz. Instead of her familiar defiantly flat tone, her vocal is pitched up, offering a lovely lilt and a more gentle rhythmic intonation. It is a truly gorgeous and deceptively simple piece of warm neo-soul that does not require the grander orchestral palette to bestow tender emotion. The final track “Control” brings a further surprise - a love song. Samuel Crowe initiates a delicate piano theme which meanders through Simz’ cautious, sensitive reflections on a love affair, heightened by some soulful male backing singers. It is a sweet ending to the album, a quiet moment that illuminates softer emotional tonalities after such a rich collection of themes.
My pressing of “No Thank You” is lush, deep, clear and dynamic. There is almost no surface noise and I had absolutely no issues with sound quality (more on this later) - higher end frequencies are clear and absent from sibilance or distortion. The midrange (mostly composed of choral and string sections) appears sleek and silky. The bass rendering is deeply satisfying; whether the low end is coming from an electronic source or a double bass, there is a balanced yet powerful presence to the low frequencies. This bass balance really absorbs me; the depth and clarity are sophisticated and not boomy or over-bearing, but I feel every pulse with force and precision. This is a fine illustration of skilled production by Inflo, and sensitive mixing and mastering by Ben Baptie - no less than twelve European recording studios are credited, including AIR and Abbey Road. The choral and orchestral sections feel spacious and truthful. Simz’ vocal rarely diverts from a specific frequency range, and it feels almost like a notch in the instrumental tracks allows her rapping to sit in a perfect space, unadorned, direct and intimate. At my preferred choice of listening volume, her vocal delivery is convincingly like hearing her speech in the room; on my pressing at least, she speaks her lyrics as though she is facing me, sat between my speakers, six feet away. I especially enjoyed the dynamics of this recording. The orchestral passages are rendered with engaging subtlety to complement the potent drumming and chunky electronics; the choral parts have a true emotional heft and soulful presence. This is a really rewarding sonic experience; the characteristics of the many distinct vocalists, the textures of acoustic and sampled/synthetic instrumentation, and the sensitivity of the arrangements impress me even more than on “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” - and that is high praise. The discs themselves are beautifully manufactured by Optimal Media (BN89955). The red/yellow split variant is vibrant and semi-translucent. The tracks have been generously spaced on this double LP, which enables the punchy bass presence. My copies are perfectly flat and regular, track smoothly, and are free of flaws.
The cover photo of Little Simz is fashionably out-of-focus (or alternatively, with the focus shifted to the organic shapes of the architectural background). The photo, by Karolina Wielocha, is a direct, candid image of Simz in a moment of movement and stasis. The sleeve construction of this LP is unfortunately impractical. An envelope-style flap must be carefully teased from a die-cut slot, and the interior is revealed by unfolding top and bottom sections. This was achieved with some trepidation. Inside is… nothing. No pictures or text, just a blank pocket. Tightly squeezed within this pocket are the two discs in heavyweight printed inner sleeves. If you have ever struggled cautiously with the sleeve of the incredible “Syro” triple-LP by Aphex Twin, then opening “No Thank You” for the first time will re-acquaint you with the anxiety of trying to get the damn discs out without ripping the card pocket. However, none of the intricate difficulties of successfully getting into this complex sleeve design even come close to the trials of getting everything folded back inside again. Those inner sleeves are attractively printed on clay-coloured satin card, but confusingly, both discs are contained within identical sleeves. On one side is a tracklist and acknowledgements, on the other is a dizzyingly comprehensive list of personnel credits for each track. I am not really complaining about this duplication; but I would have preferred to see the expanse of cardboard real-estate inside this package adorned with a few pictures or some lyrics. I even went back to my local record shop to ask if I had a wrongly-assembled package, but numerous Discogs users have also commented on this odd design choice.
Speaking of Discogs users, not all of them are happy about the pressing quality of the several vinyl variants listed online for different territories. Complaints include distortion on choral and orchestral parts, significant surface noise, lack of dynamic range and dull, muddy sound. I have already expressed my complete satisfaction with the pressing quality of my copy, but you may wish to explore other opinions before buying. And buy it you should - this is Little Simz at her best, supported by musical artists who have taken UK hip hop on to a new level.
Below is a six year old Little Simz NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert viewed more than 700,000 times.