UK rapper Little Simz‘s debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, is a record defined in equal parts by youthful ferocity and the ambivalence in searching for an identity. In some ways, Trials + Persons is autobiographical, with much of the album’s playtime dedicated to vignettes of her journey to fame and success. Unlike the material she’s put out on the 8 mixtapes she’s released since 2013, both the content and the structure that Trials + Persons displays are rigidly defined by its concept. Simz goes as far as making it obvious herself through her lyrics, spitting, “Trials and persons will be explained” on the opening track “Persons.”
From the get-go, then, it’s clear that Simz isn’t interested in subtlety. At one point during “Persons” there’s a rant that exasperatedly snarls, “All you backwards bitches need to realize it’s 2015,” and it seems as if she’s priming for an album that modernizes the classic backpacker rap-goody-two-shoes sense of “conscious” rap. This certainly seems like the direction the album is headed in after the second track, “Wings,” in which Simz frames her personal life’s journey in a way that sounds suspiciously like a parallel to the lineage of Hip-Hop. She starts, “This is my story,” before retracting it and correcting herself: “This is our story.” Later in the song, she continues: “Nobody handed me a dream, I had to chase it.” Right in the center of the album, though, is “God Bless Mary,” which Simz wrote as an apology and thank-you to her next-door neighbor for being the muse that silently tolerated the endless hours Simz would be blasting music. While it’s not conscious in the same sense of Talib Kweli rhyming about how MC’s lack skills like the black community lack unity, it’s a genuinely endearing acknowledgement of someone whose toes got stepped on a little during Simz’s journey to success.
In terms of mixtape-to-album transitions and the move from free-roaming playground experimentation to tight cohesion, Simz’s debut lands somewhere towards the extreme end of the spectrum. Comparing the rigidity of Trials + Persons to one of her older mixtapes like E.D.G.E. illuminates how much more fun Simz sounds like she’s having when she’s not so worried about adhering to a concept. Indeed, E.D.G.E. has tracks like “Devour” and “Hamptons” that show a version of Simbi who is far more liberal with when she loosens her own leash.
Musically speaking, Trials + Persons is a mixed bag as a whole. Simz is never herself lacking in vocal delivery or mic presence, and it’s no surprise someone who can rhyme as nimbly as she can earned a cosign from Rap Nerd King Kendrick Lamar. Indeed, the new album sees Simbi continue her demonstration of the obviously God-given talent on the mic that she previously showed on Blank Canvas and E.D.G.E., nimbly weaving words together with a level of comfortability that implies years of experience. She certainly does the best she can with the production she spits over, but many of the album’s beats like “Tainted” adopt a sound palette that hits too close to the recent works of Eminem: washed out mixes, over-produced synths that sound artificially clean, excessive usage of string, and piano arrangements that are more often cheesy than potent.
It’s fitting that Simz ends her album on note as uncertain as “Fallen” does. The track plays like an asterisk at the end of Little Simz’s grand statement, like the ultimate acknowledgement of the small space she occupies in a big, big world–whether it be the world at large or the world of Hip-Hop. Trials + Persons leaves something to be desired in the way of detail, but that’s not to say it’s lacking depth. Clearly Simbi has a whole lot to give the world of hip-hop; at this point it’s a matter of how willing she is to play with the fire that sits inside her.