Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or you’re on the BRIT awards voting panel, you’ll be aware that the UK grime scene is enjoying a real purple patch. This is clearly evidenced when artists like Frank Carter, the ex-Gallows frontman, declaring at the NME awards that “grime is the new punk rock”. Grime’s dominance was even clearer demonstrated by the fact that Skepta’s fourth record Konnichiwa charted at number 3 in the UK albums chart, as well as managing to capture the cultural zeitgeist in a way very little music has done lately with the singles That’s Not Me and the inescapable Shutdown.
One of the MC’s who has generated the greatest hype in this golden age of grime is Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, whose rise to fame almost perfectly personifies grime’s rapid growth. As he puts it on Cold – “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted” – referencing Shut Up, the penultimate track on Gang Signs and Prayer, which Stormzy debuted as a freestyle in a Croydon park which was uploaded to YouTube and shot to the top 10 of the UK Top 40 Chart. You may hear about this and assume Stormzy to be something of a one-hit wonder – but the remarkable Gang Signs and Prayer shows him to be anything but.
The biggest surprise while listening to this debut is how polished and well-produced it sounds, and how Stormzy manages to pull off this ultra-slick production and make a record which is unmistakeably a grime record. The lyrical content on tracks like Return of the Rucksack and the aforementioned Cold, which are essentially brag tracks, shows that Stormzy has not gone pop and abandoned the genre that he is famed within. The best grime track on this album is lead single Big For Your Boots, which opens with a sample guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. This precedes the chorus which crashes in with Stormzy reminding any challengers that he has size 12 feet and “your face ain’t big for my boot” with a lightning-quick flow in the verses guaranteed to send festival crowds into raptures.
Elsewhere on this album, however, Stormzy uses the polished nature of the production to venture into other genres and subsections of hip-hop. Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1 is an ode to God and his faith which doesn’t actually feature any rapping. Stormzy’s singing voice is average at best – but he partly masks this with subtle autotune. After all, one of the biggest moments of Stormzy’s fledgling career so far came at the 2015 BRIT Awards when he was on stage with Kanye West, and if a mediocre voice has never stopped Kanye singing then why should it stop Stormzy?
Velvet utilises trap beats (which appear on various tracks across the record) and sounds far sexier than any track ever written by a grime artist. The slower songs aren’t just on the tracklist to make up the numbers either, Stormzy uses them to convey other parts of his personality which he cannot explore on hard-hitting grime brag tracks. Cigarettes and Cush features one of the most bizarrely catchy pop-rap hooks in recent memory, where Stormzy is backed up by none other than Lily Allen in singing about his relationship with his girlfriend and the importance of weed in this relationship.
The juxtaposition between hard-hitting grime and softer, more personal tracks is best exemplified in the one-two punch of Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2 and Return of the Rucksack towards the end of the record. The former stands head and shoulders above the earlier Pt 1, and in all honesty, most tracks on the album. It’s a stunning, gospel-influenced song which sonically leans more towards Kanye and Chance the Rapper than any of Stormzy’s grime contemporaries. MNEK’s vocals on the chorus are the best feature on the album by a country mile, and the message is so powerful that it can resonate with even the most obstinate atheist. No sooner do the choir vocals from this track bow out than the harsh beats of Return of the Rucksack barge in. This is one of the hardest and fastest grime tracks on this album where Stormzy returns to his unwaveringly self-assured lyricism with lines like “Yeah I think I’m the best I’m biased/ And I shoot for your chest like Payet”.
The final section of the record may be the strongest section, and ensures this debut goes out on a bang rather than a whimper. A standout is 100 Bags, which opens with an excerpt of Stormzy’s mum speaking to him on the phone, and the rest of the track is addressed to Stormzy’s “mumsy”, where he is brutally honest in apologising to her for his past behaviour while pledging to provide for her with the money he is making from his newfound fame. The swagger of penultimate track Shut Up sounds as frenetic on a 16-track album as it did in a Croydon park and shows just how good a flow Stormzy has when he really gets going.
Fascinatingly, though, the album’s most confident track is succeeded by the most confessional. On Lay Me Bare, Stormzy does exactly as the title suggests and abandons the cocky persona he adopts so often to candidly discuss his struggles with depression, his relationship with his estranged father and the death of one of his childhood friends. In a time when there is so much attention being paid to male mental health (as there should be) it is refreshing to hear an artist like Stormzy tackle the issue and admit to struggling with depression so frankly, and the fact that the album ends on this track is very powerful.
While this is not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination (it is a bit long and drawn-out at some points, and the overall running time can make it a bit of a challenging listen for more casual fans) this is an incredibly strong debut album. The production throughout is excellent, and Stormzy uses the record’s 16 tracks to dynamically convey countless facets of his personality and persona. Stormzy is undoubtedly a grime artist but the fact that Gang Signs and Prayer sees him venture into mainstream hip-hop and even gospel demonstrates that he has ambitions bigger than his 6ft 5 frame, and wants to propel both himself, and the grime genre to stratospheric heights.