Stormzy’s something of an anomaly in the grime scene - unlike almost every other grime artist in recent memory, he’s got crossover appeal. It’s not everyday a hard-spitting MC performs alongside Ed Sheeran at the BRIT Awards, winning over scores of new fans by appearing alongside Britain’s collective sweetheart. Without even an album to his name, the rising star of Britain’s rap culture copped a character reference from the single most successful artist on the planet. That, however, was soon to change.
Two days after his BRIT Awards appearance, Stormzy dropped his long awaited debut, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer.’ My first listen, a day or two later, was the first real contact I’d ever had with the grime scene. I mean, sure, I knew of “Shut Up,” but that hardly counts. This record was a sort of ‘baptism by fire’ - is the call and response pattern on “Shut Up” a grime staple? What’s all this stuff about “backup dancers?” What does “murky” even mean? In the end, however, the most surprising element of the album wasn’t the lingo or the indecipherable references - it was Stormzy’s own musical versatility.
“Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1” was the first big surprise - despite the religious references inherent in the album title and cover art, I didn’t expect Stormzy to pen a contemporary hymn. Even wedged between hard-hitting beats, the track comes across as sincere. Happy laughter precedes the airy vocals, which sound as though they were recorded in a single live take. This technical authenticity dispels any doubts as to Stormzy’s intent - whilst it could otherwise come across as shoehorned, it’s nothing but a true reflection of the MC’s faith. He incorporates his faith into other tracks such as “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2” and “21 Gun Salute,” both of which are more rap-oriented than “Pt.1.”
Highlights are varied - album opener “First Things First” is harder than the Kehlani-featuring “Cigarettes and Cush,” but both are standouts in their own right. “Shut Up,” the oldest track on the album, is also the most basic. It revels in the simplicity, allowing Stormzy to spit without any real production magic. The inclusion of “Shut Up” is a statement in its own right - when paired with the preceding interval, “Crazy Titch,” it’s a powerful reminder of Stormzy’s role in grime’s ascendance. A phone conversation with incarcerated rapper Crazy Titch acts as a powerful cosign - a vanguard of old-school grime, Titch enthusiastically grandstands Stormzy’s talent, claiming he’s the one who’ll take grime from “a second rate genre to a first rate genre.”
He also talks down those who think themselves “too gangster” to listen to Stormzy, saying “shut up, that's a lie, you ain't.” He’s not wrong - Stormzy definitely retains his gangster cred “Return of the Rucksack,” another one of the album’s less-accessible rap tracks. It’s an interesting inclusion - ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ seems more and more like an album split between religious worship, catchy pop-rap tunes and pure gangster bravado. It’s impressive that Stormzy makes it work so well.
Eleven of the sixteen tracks are featureless, leaving the bulk of the hour-long record for Stormz and Stormz alone. Collaboration seems to mellow him out, whilst solo cuts “First Things First” and “Cold” are both scathing verses over hard beats. That having been said, listen out for Ghetts on “Bad Boys,” who spits what’s maybe the hardest verse on the entire album.
Debut LPs are often delicate affairs, thematically simplistic and meticulously marketable. Whilst Stormzy’s sound walks the line between artistic and listener-friendly, he portrays himself as increasingly nuanced through conflicting themes. He plays his own religious beliefs against the hard-talking street character he portrays, which makes for interesting listening. This wasn’t what I expected - it was lighter, more thematically complex and surprisingly radio-ready. There’s no real sonic progression throughout - tracks aren’t arranged in any kind of overarching narrative, and though it starts off hard, it ebbs and flows from mellow to gangster without a care. Tracks like “Cigarettes and Cush,” whilst lyrically explicit, sound like prospective mainstream radio hits. It’s a reminder that Stormzy’s mainstream appeal is more than just Ed Sheeran’s goodwill - it’s the product of his own artistic maneuvering.
Stormzy's debut record 'Gang Signs & Prayer' is out now