Published Feb 03, 2017Down the rabbit hole she went, reaching for lyrical depths, digging up the roots of her insecurities to lay them bare for her listeners. Yes, Little Simz's new album Stillness In Wonderland (out now on her own Age 101 label) casts her as Alice in a hip-hop take on Lewis Carroll's beloved novel. And while references to the Cheshire Cat and other Alice In Wonderland characters abound throughout the 22-year-old British MC's sophomore album, the result isn't reminiscent of classic literature, but instead a confessional autobiography.
"As cliched as it sounds, music is my only form of expression. So I have to be honest with myself, and with that comes being vulnerable," Simz tells Exclaim! of the unflinchingly tender lyrics on Wonderland songs like "Doorways + Trust Issues," which features a refrain about being insecure, but also triumphant verses about how her imperfections "made me who I'm trying to be."
Conveying these messages to her audience is quite fulfilling — after all, as a music diehard herself, she has also relied on her favorite artists to do the same. "When you feel like a musician you listen to is like you, then they don't feel so far away, and whatever you want to get to isn't so far away."
But other aspects of making music — especially the press — can augment the frustrations and anxieties of artists like Simz. Reporters that are quick to classify her as a female MC, and go on to frame their articles around that topic, especially irk her. "It's a label I'd rather not fall under, it's very limiting. It doesn't make me feel like I can be anything, it makes me feel like that's all I can be. I'm not that kind of person, my mindset is very much like: 'I can be whoever I want.'"
One artist she listens during trying times is Kendrick Lamar. "Our stories are different, but he just gives off the kind of vibe of the guy you see when you go to the shop," she says of the relatable California rapper, who has also voiced his love of her music. She says she loves Lamar's work because "He's honest in his lyrics and you believe him."
The growing buzz and critical acclaim around both her albums has granted Simz opportunities to meet some of her idols like Lamar ("He's one of the real ones, such an inspiring guy," she says of their encounter). But the downside of her growing success has been equally pronounced, albeit just as motivating.
"I've felt like I was in a wonderland, in an industry with a lot of glitz and glamour," she says, prompting her to draw on Lewis Carroll's equally surreal Wonderland to build a musical landscape of her own. She was also compelled to make Stillness In Wonderland a concept album in an era when that format seems daunting and all but abandoned in favour of showier, shallower fare.
"I enjoy albums, not a song here and there. The recordings I like have been a soundtrack to a universe," she says, adding that she feels like she succeeded in creating a compelling world for listeners. Simz sees it as part of the gradual progress she's made in her short career, and it helps quell the insecurities that she wrote about on "Doorways + Trust Issues."
"Every time I return to perform in the U.S., are more and more receptive," she says of that progress, adding that certainly wasn't the case during her first Stateside visit to promote her music. "I haven't knocked all the doors I need to knock down, but I can see it happening more and more. It will just take more perseverance and work."
Little Simz brings her "Welcome to Wonderland" tour to Toronto's Velvet Underground on March 9 and Newspeak in Montreal on March 10.