Rapper Simbi Ajikawo, who records as Little Simz, is by all measures on an upward trajectory, with comparisons to iconoclasts like Lauryn Hill and praise from craft-minded virtuosos like Kendrick Lamar (the latter said Simz “might be the illest doing it now.”) By last year’s A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons, she’d experienced enough fame to be ambivalent about it—“the type of music that ain’t never gonna sell,” she rapped on “Wings.” But sell it did, enough for Simz’s next album to feature notably well-curated guests (though not Lamar; that collaboration will probably be pretty great whenever it inevitably happens). All of which served to set her up nicely for her new album, which is…a concept album based on Alice in Wonderland.
The reference to the children’s story is a metaphor, naturally—“It’s about situations I’m still trying to get my head around, and places where I’m still trying to figure out who to trust, or who not to trust,” Little Simz told Vice in late 2016. (The exact situations are a bit amorphous—in other interviews she’s suggested the music industry, or escaping into art, or escapism in general.) But the conceit is the biggest problem—there’s a limit to how many takes can be drawn from a book of Victorian math jokes and accompanying film of Disneyfied drugginess. Alice is also more suited to satire or farce—Carroll’s original idea—than serious subjects or earnest introspection, the two modes of this album. “LPMD,” the first track, features a conscious Chronixx verse on Bob Marley, Black Lives Matter, and pineal glands, followed by a birdsong-flecked interlude featuring a spacey, pitch-shifted Cheshire Cat that evokes, depending on how charitable one is, reggae or a spa. A point is being made here, but perhaps not the intended one.
On Stillness in Wonderland, befitting the title, Simz eschews the vivid psychedelia of peers like Janelle Monáe in favor of a muted, atmospheric approach. There are a couple of overt references—a “white rabbit” clip recurs throughout, and “King of Hearts” takes advantage of Alice’s most confrontational character to let Simz take off heads with Chip (still atoning for his kiddie-grime past as Chipmunk) and Ghetts. But for the most part, the wonder is in the arrangements. Much of Stillness features gorgeous production; touchstones might be early Martina Topley-Bird or last year’s KING album.
But Stillness in Wonderland comes off more as a sparsely edited mixtape than a self-contained album: heavy on atmosphere, light on songs. Simz is remarkably prolific—this is her 11th release—and the album often feels fragmentary: tracks have five ideas in the space where one should be, promising experiments are shoehorned into a concept that perhaps might not have been there. On “Picture Perfect,” she plays Wonderland MC over jaunty brass; if only there was more to say besides “Wonderland is amazing, ain’t it?”
Unusually for such an introspective album, the guest spots are welcome respite.“Poison Ivy” is a standout, a duet with longterm collaborator Tilla about a toxic-yet-compelling relationship, personified in a distorted, prickly guitar line tried to build an alluring soul duet atop. On “Shotgun,” there’s a gossamer hook by the always-welcome Syd, and then there’s Bibi Bourelly’s Rihanna-polished swagger on “Bad to the Bone.” It’s probably not coincidental that these two tracks are both more polished, with a radio-pop sheen totally out of place with the proggier stuff, and contain relatively few Alice references; Simz’s grappling with fame may well be a holding pattern. “I don’t want to be an overnight sensation/I’m tryin’ to make a record you can’t stop playin’,” SiR says on “One in Rotation”; there’s some false dichotomy shit going on here, and then the track cuts off, abruptly, as if snapped out of a dream.