The curse of the December release whereby year-end lists now completely ignore the final month of the calendar year seems to have taken another victim with Little Simz exceptional album “NO THANK YOU”. Each week, we work through endless rap albums with very few sticking out as you develop a numbness (or more accurately, less patience) toward the tired tropes trotted out by rappers. Few emcees provide records worth revisiting. Little Simz is just built differently, and despite already now lauded critically across the globe, it’s time to throw her under the RapReviews microscope. If we produced our “Best of 2022” lists six months later, I’m absolutely certain this would have topped the list, because I’ve sat with it for months now and it’s still played regularly. This review is one that’s sat in my drafts for just as long because I’ve wrestled with just how good it really is.
Much like 2021’s “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”; Simz’s breakthrough record, “NO THANK YOU” is rich, diverse, and blockbuster in its aesthetic. It feels like a proper album, and with it, a significant one. Simz pulls in all sorts of influences, but there’s an overarching, almost choral feel to songs like “Angel” and “Silhouette”. Choirs hum in unison, lending songs an uplifting, powerful backdrop for Simz to share her thoughts. This is all courtesy of Sault producer Inflo, a fellow Brit with numerous acclaimed projects that transcend genres.
Regular readers will be aware of how highly we value the British emcee Cappo, and the track “Gorilla” reminded me of his monstrous single “Fire With Fire”, as he compared himself to “Big Foot banging my chest”. Simz may not have quite the commanding destruction of Cappo, but her nonchalant, effortless flow is just as imposing, particularly when paired with a beat designed to showcase her rhymes, with rallying horns acting as a brief moment to take a breath. A similar sensation is provided on “No Merci”, as Simz touches on her come-up as a young black woman navigating the music industry. The energizing “X” elaborates further, sharing more on her background and her distrust of “those in suits” and questions whether she is genuinely appreciated by those marketing her art. “One day you’ll love my pain” rings out on the hook, and it feels defiantly black. It’s not hard to see why Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar have both shown admiration for the Londoner, with the latter being an understandable comparison as far as mainstream hip-hop artists unafraid to embrace and promote one’s blackness.
Much like how Oddisee and The Roots tour with live bands, and it enhances their output, I can see Simz touring this album with a band. It just operates on a different level to 99% of hip-hop that’s being produced in 2023, and it’s been a long time since I’ve heard such a prominent rapper that has the holy trinity: lyrical pedigree, emotional availability, and flawless production. Some of the songs here sound like Kanye West during his “My Dark, Beautiful, Twisted Fantasy” recording sessions, particularly “Sideways” with its soothing backdrop complemented by its pounding kicks:
“I’m ready to become all I believe in
The devil can’t illuminate my being
When God is omnipresent, overseeing
I’m taking notes from every book I’m reading
I didn’t know the word ‘No’ could be so freeing
Respectfully, you haven’t got to check for me
Only I know how I feel and what’s best for me
Eventually, they’ll get that I’m here as a vessel
Stop playing with God and your destiny
I am everything they never was, never meant to be
I’m a queen in my city, got royal-like tendencies
Walking in my light, my shadow is protecting me
Never moving sideways, I done this shit my way”
The Streets (aka Mike Skinner) is an easy comparison, but it’s an apt one (she even works him into a punchline on “Gorilla”). Simz has a warmth to her matter-of-fact style, but her raps are friendlier on the ear than Mike Skinner’s ever were, thanks to a background spitting bars, which is definitely a contributory factor to her international success. Appearances on Fire in the Booth, 5 Fingers of Death, and freestyles on Hot 97 have all convinced hip-hop purists of her skills, no doubt opening up the wider American market. This playfulness with words lends “NO THANK YOU” an accessibility that defies the reality of the content. As Simz glides over “No Merci” with powerful statements like “I’m unapologetically black” and “I’m not a human being you can gaslight” delivered so matter-of-factly, it highlights a woman in control of her journey. Even when the beat switches and adds some foreboding menace to the equation, she doesn’t then take on an aggressive tone where earlier emcees like Queen Latifah or Lady of Rage may have. This is where Little Simz excels further, by not being constrained by the traditional restrictions placed on ladies spitting bars. Even RapReviews favorites like Sa-Roc can quickly fall back to displays of lyrical acrobatics, but Simz successfully navigates away from dropping “hot 16s” by simply excluding guest rappers entirely. You’ve got percussion straight out of Africa, choral (and soulful) gospel paired with window-rattling drill basslines. There are violins, trombones – hell, you’ve got the full spectrum of the orchestra involved, and in that respect, “NO THANK YOU” could easily be overlooked by hip-hop fans as it doesn’t feel defined by some of the rules we as listeners unconsciously place on it. But this is the most hip-hop album I’ve heard in years – Simz is technically sound, has an original style (you know it’s her on the mic!), and provides her thoughts in an honest manner that connects with the listener. You feel every word, and when it’s backed up by a richly diverse set of instrumentals, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in years.