Little Simz- Stillness in Wonderland: Album Review

Got some reviews to catch up on from December. Hoping to return to roughly 20 a month (a true pipe dream) for 2017.

Little Simz isn’t one to drown you in overly complex themes and metaphors.  After another year garnering more attention and touring uncharted territory, Simz found a minute to jump in the studio and reflect on it all.  Stillness in Wonderland is straight forward.  A few simple parallels between the rigorous touring lifestyle and Alice’s wonderland guide the rapper through a collection of different moods ranging from frustrating self-doubt to heart wrenching loneliness and even boisterous confidence.  The relative transparency of the work doesn’t detract from Simz’s talents, however.  Rather than deeming herself a conscious rapper with endless bars of introspection, Simz favors the three-minute pop format with infectious hooks and quick-witted bars having equal weight in her songs.  The album feels refreshing.  It’s both a quick, fun listen and a thoughtful depiction of Simz’s life.

Simz first addresses the idea of doing right by her people.  While she’s out in the world getting recognition, she wonders how her influence could fix the issues that her people face at home.  Her self-confidence wilts at the idea of the icons she must follow: “We’re running out of legends/I know they look from the heavens down on me/I can’t let them down” while Chronixx wonders about the place of activism in contemporary society: “And so many people trying to be an activist in society/These days what we really need is active spirituality.”  The droning darkness of the track matches the inner turmoil that both artists face.  Next we get a glimpse at the Cheshire’s Interlude series, which becomes reoccurring.  As is true with Alice in Wonderland, the Cheshire character offers guidance, sometimes relatively helpful and other times more dangerous.

The first two tracks frame the project well, introducing the general themes, but “Doorways and Trust Issues” is the first clear standout track.  Beginning with fun, carefree lines: “This is how it’s supposed to be/When it’s 30 plus degrees/Riding with the windows down/Oooo just so you can see me in it” and “Haters are forever mad, I just laugh, then hit the dab,” the song quickly shifts focus to Simz’s constant battle with trust issues as she grows as an artist and reaches into different social circles.  The struggle is deepened a bit by Simz’s disconnect with her hometown, “I don’t belong anywhere, not even my own town,” which leaves her with nowhere to turn as she also doesn’t “trust anyone apart from who [she] came with.”  Sonically, the song showcases Simz’s talent for collaging various ideas together cohesively.  The listener gets a taste of quick tempo verse before a half sung pre-chorus.  Then they’re thrust into a contrasting spacey section where Simz spills her guts over longing trumpet melodies.  It’s clear that Simz has spent considerable amount of time developing her songwriting since the mixtape days.

Following Simz’s “about a girl” tune “Her” and the somewhat lackluster “One in Rotation/Wide Awake,” the album picks up with a pair of punching singles.  “Shotgun” is a sunburst summer tune with a fun, boom-bap beat for Simz to play with and a true ear worm hook supplied by Syd.  “Picture Perfect’s” Avalanches-influenced cartoon beat compliments one of the more savage string of rhymes on the project.  Simz still gets a bit heavier for lines like “might just bag your bitch” and “got bodies in bags and shit” for the relentless “King of Hearts” and “Bad to the Bone” tunes.  Thematically, the work has entered a much different atmosphere from the hesitant opening numbers.  Under the guidance of the “white rabbit,” Simz is exposed to the riskier side of the “wonderland” touring lifestyle, giving her much more confidence.  Still—judging by the rather direct DMT reference on “Picture Perfect”—she seems to be masking her problems.  Simz unravels a bit on “Poison Ivy,” where she weaves a tale about a toxic relationship that she can’t get away from—maybe a metaphor for the lifestyle she’s been exposed to—and the whole album seems to come full circle on “Low Tides.”

There’s something about “Low Tides” that deems it the biggest tune on the record.  This is where Little Simz comes to terms with the fact that she can’t muscle through her mental health issues.  Her voice nears its breaking point with every “I don’t even wanna be here” screamed into the mirror at each hook, giving urgency and impact to the situation.  Absent of some of Simz’s collaging songwriting strategies in the more pop-formatted tunes, “Low Tides” rides a heavy, dark wave.

Stillness in Wonderland flows nicely with plenty of radio-worthy singles, and dance-able beats.  As far as the narrative goes, it’s not something that should bring you to tears or alter your world view, but Simz is crafting singles without sacrificing her vivid storytelling and moving emotional awareness.  Also, these tunes are not simple alternating hooks and verses; Simz manages to meld many different pieces cohesively into the pop tunes making for an unpredictable, but palatable listening experience.  More growth is to be expected in the future, but, musically speaking, Simz is in a great place right now.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

hear/purchase this project here: https://littlesimz.bandcamp.com/album/stillness-in-wonderland

 

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