“a technically astonishing MC. Her verses freewheel from skippy, breathless flows that pack an impossible number of syllables per bar, to stop-start rhymes so tight to the beat they could’ve been superglued there.” The Guardian
English words are local to time and place. If you didn’t share North London with Little Simz over the past 25 years, Avelino, AF-1 New Era hats, dummies on chains, shubz, bait and bumping trains won’t be part of your word-hoard. But it’s hard for any present day world citizen to imagine a time in the future when Play Station 2, Crash Bandicoot and Mortal Kombat will need Shakespeare-style notes for a teenager to have any chance of understanding the references.
All words live their most active lives in a specific time as well as a specific space. There’ll come a time when cigarette papers are only seen in museums.
In our own time, the shape of Little Simz‘ words and the sounds she places them against work perfectly. The old-style electronic computer game backtrack of 101 FM beeps merrily along with the vowel sounds: the ‘ee‘ of dreams, easy, weed, salary, trees or the round a of mad, flats, Insta, Rasta, and the easy, quick shape of her d and t consonants. You can see the joy of 101 FM more clearly here, at Glastonbury:
Little Simz often lands and dances on an ‘n‘: in happenin’ and one. It’s a way of punctuating the sound picture. With happenin’ placed just before the bap, bap, bap gunshot sounds, slowing on the n of ‘happenin‘ makes the bright p of bap, bap, bap pop more loudly in contrast.
‘N‘ is one of the best, most comfortable English consonants to pause on when you rap. Your tongue comes to a natural stop behind your teeth and you’re well-placed to move in any direction. A bit like standing in the middle of the baseline when you play tennis.
But it’s not just a good place because it’s an easy place. It’s a good place because it’s an unusual place. It’s unusual to pause for more than a millisecond on the final n of any word in English. So your audience will notice. They will pay attention. And attention is a golden thing. Listen to Jorja Smith working those final consonants:
If you write songs, rap, or if you sing, such tiny details in sound focus and word placement make all the difference in meaning.
Reaching such effortless joy in performing such a complicated mouth-dance of syllables and sounds has taken a long and dedicated apprenticeship. Little Simz has been rapping since she was 11.
If you write rap yourself, or if you’re an artist of any kind, you’ll find mature advice here as OTG and Little Simz talk:
Of course, the best rap isn’t just about mouth-gymnastics and random syllables produced at speed:
“There are big, chunky breaks, fat funk dollops, the crackle of US soul, touches of cosmic jazz and cinematic strings”
Little Simz tours internationally – later this year she’s in Chile and Brazil after whizzing around Europe. Wherever you live, it’s worth travelling a little bit to catch her. Her website’s here, her Twitter’s here and her Insta’s here.
© Sing Better English 2019