Review: Little Simz, Stillness in Wonderland

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Two weeks are left in the year, and most publications have already delivered their year-end lists, a bold move considering December’s recent track record for late-game surprises. (We’re as guilty as anybody.) In our rush to get our critical opinions out before others, we postulate that nothing better lies on the horizon.

You know what they say about the spelling of “assume,” right? Well, Little Simz made one of all of us with Stillness in Wonderland. The same way the year in music started it shall end, with a young, independent MC delivering a prime collection of tracks, all to show the world that they can.

True to its name, much of Wonderland floats in a haze fit for a hookah-spewing caterpillar with a short temper and sharp tongue. After the real world falls from her favor in “LMPD” (Let My People Down), Simbi Ajikawo lets herself be swallowed by the rabbit hole, her state-of-mind conveyed through the kaleidoscope of Wonderland. In Wonderland, she knows she’s in charge, but it’s an authority limited to the confines of her mind. Like Janelle Monae’s Cyndi Mayweather detailing the boundaries of her android metropolis, Ajikawo documents and deconstructs the sprawling confines of Wonderland, a state she physically and mentally inhabits.

Her compositions, like Ajikawo herself, defy expectation, transitioning mid-track to blossom into entirely new flowers. A 6/8 rhythm in “Poison Ivy” lets Ajikawo unhurriedly flex her way in, allowing a set of hollow drums to emerge that push her stroll into a roll. The clangor of church bells that heralds “Low Tide” eventually turns into a dreamy electro ambience that sounds like a sedated interpretation of Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know The Better”. Even when assisted by well-placed features ranging from longtime collaborators (Tilla) to rising stars (Bibi Bourelly) Ajikawo remains in control, rapping and singing with an earnestness that begs you to underestimate her.

Grime artists always act a bit intimidating, but Ajikawo can sound downright terrifying. “If you’re crossing my land/ bear understand/You ain’t safe” she proclaims in “King of Hearts”; she’s already taken the queen’s head, and she’ll take yours too. Depending on her mood, Ajikawo can make this menace seem maniacal, on display over a brash tenor sax in “Picture Perfect”. At this mid-section, Ajikawo is fully submerged in the depths of Wonderland, and finds she maneuvers it quite well.

As she explores and conquers the different realms of Wonderland (fame & fortune, relationships, and her state of mind), Ajikawo finds herself stunted, a ‘stillness’ that affects her personally and professionally. Wonderland’s physical state surrounds her with people she doesn’t trust (“I don’t’ trust anyone but who I came with /Is that bad of me?”). Subsequently, it pushes her further into a mental escape where she internalizes this scrutiny. Her epiphany is revealed in “Low Tide” as the distractions of Wonderland recede to bare Ajikawo at her rawest, which is also her strongest. By the finale, “No More Wonderland”, Ajikawo sheds its spectacle, realizing that it is out of lessons to teach her.

“Real shit’s happening and my people need me/I’m out” she concludes, but thankfully she dropped in just long enough to deliver a truly fantastic record that defies the expectations people have of unsigned artists and female rappers. Ajikawo knows she’s on her way to something new, and she enjoins us to follow her instead of white rabbits. She already knows where they’re going, and it’s not nearly as interesting as where she’s headed. B PLUS