There is no blueprint in how to create a modern musical success today. You could argue that there may have been traceable formulas in the past, but what makes our postmodern age so fascinating today is that there is no need for the musician to tie themselves down to a contextual starting point. Many fail due to that lack of obvious infrastructure; indeed, our postmodern age has its negatives. But occasionally, someone comes along to remind us that this era of music still has its gems, and that tangible goodness can still be found while looking solely through the lens of the present day.
Enter “GREY AREA” by British musician Little Simz, an album so deeply rooted in the elements that have shaped our collective contemporary taste — rap, nightlife appeal, cultural issues, personality — and through sheer musical talent and sparks of genius, creates a work of actual monumental success. A modern success, no doubt; but more importantly, simply a flat-out success. We’re only fortunate that it also happens to reflect the world we live in today. This is an album that I want 2019 to be remembered by; I can’t say it will be by the general populous, but Lord knows I’ll be doing so.
There are two major technical successes here. One being Little Simz’s remarkable skill in rhythmic phrase construction, including variance in rhythmic density and ability to stream together rhyme after rhyme while keeping the listener on their toes with where accents will land. With that came a total sense of fearlessness in being right at the forefront, shifting speeds and vocal dynamic with only the thought of pure emotion and energy pattern in mind, without a need to please people looking for a specific mood.
It wasn’t as exquisite all the way through; some choruses left rhythmic energy at the door for no good reason, and a couple songs like “Offence” and “Selfish” didn’t have the crucial syncopation element in vocal lines to mix up the metric falls of phrase endings. That’s really the extent of any melodic negatives here, as everything else coming from the voice of Little Simz was quite captivating. The four tracks in a row of “Venom”, “101 FM”, “Pressure”, and “Therapy” was some of the most riveting and engaging spoken word I’ve heard this century. Not to mention, she’s delivering some very meaningful, personal messages about her struggles with racism, societal gaps, and mental health. She hits a level of mastery here that not many ever reach in their lifetime. It’s also the most highlighted and accessible part of the album, where many can find enjoyment in alone.
So, she’s a prolific rapper. But that in itself is not what makes this album a work of real magnitude. The second major technical success here, perhaps even more important than the melodic talent, is the wonderful focus on finding a mesmerizing countermelodic pattern in the instrumental foundation. This, to me, is really what separates this album from being just a strong passion project to a complete 2019 must listen. On paper, it seems like a simple ingredient, and one that’s hit or miss but not terribly consequential due to the focus on what’s on top of it. However, that mindset is what seems to actually derail lots of rap these days. With the musical layers here being so stark and narrow, as lots of rap is, everything heard on the track plays an important role in the music’s execution.
This album certainly doesn’t disappoint with a harmonic layer that mostly goes toe to toe with the vocal brilliance, matching very well with syncopation of its own and maintaining a strong pedal tone outline whilst dancing around the scale and creating a succinct repetitive groove. “Wounds” was the only song that really missed out on finding a background countermelodic line, as the guitar pattern was too sparse with an odd tritone jump being its only attempt at linear engagement. Other than that, this was quite a fun jam all around. That pentatonic riff on “FM 101” makes it one of my favorite songs of the year, easily.
Lastly, I’d like to praise the overall sonic maturity and total flexibility in instrumentation, which provided yet another satisfying element to the experience. It’s a recurring staple in this style to simply use a beat and a single melodic instrument to accompany the vocals. Like I alluded to earlier, one thing this album does so well is that it takes these techniques that have become so engrained in our popular music and gives it a total postmodern, personal flair with decisions based on organic emotion and energy as opposed to doing some market-tested half-ass job. In that way, the only aspect of an outline that remains here is just the basic structural accessibility, which was used in a very positive way.
That is very evident in the timbral combinations here, as the overall soundscape has a level of comfortability in its obvious thin layering, but also very unique emotional attachments by use of great personable playing styles. From the driving and funky loud bass groove in “Boss” to the somber piano touch in “Pressure” to the ethereal saxophone solo in “Flowers”, these songs all had a restless quality to them that set up sophisticated, specific atmospheres where musical communication could thrive. Strings were used as a foundation to further that effect of sophistication and act as a foil to the occasional hard-hitting bass and fluid guitar, and also to our potential expectations of perhaps a more synthetic dominant sound. Sonically, this album sets up a lot with a little, and to that end, it’s near Kendrick Lamar level of depth and atmospheric clarity. It’s not always the most beautiful, and a couple of tracks have their moments of stagnancy, but it’s the most worthwhile album I’ve heard come out in months. This is what 2019 sounds like. This is an example of what I hope this era is remembered for.