LAITH CAHILL reviews grime artist Stormzy’s debut album.
I thought I knew what to expect from Stormzy’s debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer. ‘Shut Up’, his debut single, back-tracked many a university pre-drinks where we, just as Stormzy, ‘rolled squaddie’. ‘Big For Your Boots’, the single released prior to the full release of Gang Signs & Prayer, appeared to be more of the same. I wasn’t complaining. Stormzy’s earlier music was catchy, intelligent and outspoken — and it still is. Gang Signs & Prayer starts in much the same way. Stormzy himself describes his opening track ‘First Things First’ as ‘unapologetic and raw’; it is impossible to avoid getting caught up in the vibrant beat of ‘Cold’ — ‘if you don’t turn this up it’s no fun’; and ‘Bad Boys’ channels (and features) the legendary Ghetts creating a darker and more menacing momentum. But even in these early songs, there are signs of more deeply personal influences at work: ‘I was fighting my depression’ threatens to take over the song in ‘First Things First’, before it is interrupted by ‘-wait, okay first things first, could have put you in a hearse’.
Three songs later on ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1’, Stormzy croons ‘okay okay okay, man thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing’, over a sparse piano track more apropos of his South London peer Sampha. He tells a story of religious epiphany: ‘I’m blinded by your grace, I can’t replace you’. This song, too, is cut off. This time, ‘Big for Your Boots’, comes to kick down the door.
As the album progresses, ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ shakes off its initial appearance of an exception, becoming a sustained and increasingly surprising contrapuntal thread through the album. Gang Signs & Prayer is a naked, introspective exploration of Stormzy’s faith (‘you saved this kid, and I’m not your first…oh my god, what a God I serve’), his journey, and the chaotic experience of growing up as a black man in south London. It is reminiscent of Kanye’s gospel-infused The Life Of Pablo, championed by artists like Chance the Rapper. Gang Signs & Prayer still has the chart-topping bangers, but this is grime on a ‘ultralight beam’.
What makes this album truly special is its variety. Stormzy expands what it means to be a grime artist, what a grime album can express. Gang Signs & Prayer also explores what it means to be ‘Stormzy’. He has not changed: you should still call him ‘Gunshot Mike’ or ‘Mr Skeng’, and ‘mums’; if you’re listening, you should still cover your ears. Stormzy is a young man trying to get through life: humorous, humble and sensitive. ‘Cigarettes and Cush’, featuring Kehlani and Lily Allen, is a meditative slow piece, the two singing ‘I can’t ever let you down’ despite a relationship which has clearly deteriorated. And Stormzy’s exhortation ‘now what have you done Stormzy?’ takes centre stage in one of the album’s most open and honestly rapped verses.
In a recent interview with LBC, Stormzy defended grime against ludicrous claims that the genre contributes to knife-crime in the UK. These claims are a common criticism, part of the prevailing stigma surrounding the lazily caricatured ‘angry grime kids [and] the angry black boy’ – a stigma that even money doesn’t seem to be able to transcend. Indeed, Stormzy had his door knocked down recently by the police, who assumed that he, a black man, couldn’t possibly own a house in Chelsea. In the interview, Stormzy says, ‘my story is being in a gang and doing all of these things and getting in trouble and also it is me coming out of that and becoming a positive figure trying to better myself…our truth and where we come from is so different… all I can do is tell my truths’.
It is a story that Stormzy tells with intense clarity and a new style of rawness: an open and honest coming of age story about a young man trying to find his way in an environment where too many are refused the opportunities he has now found. In ‘100 Bags’, a recording of Stormzy’s mum plays before Stormzy pens an incredibly personal reply — a doting son speaking to his ‘Ghanaian Queen’. Pride drips from every word. But for all his faith and all he has done to make his mother proud, the narrative arc of the album travels from gospel to the perils of Stormzy’s South London, with the emotional crescendo of ‘Don’t Cry For Me’:
Trying to tell my young G’s to relax and invest in life,
They invest in knives,
Man I was in my history class when my bredrin died,
So vexed that I cried
but I come from a place where man can’t let shit slide,
So we rest in pride
and it kills us.
This crescendo culminates in ‘Lay Me Bare’:
I took this pain and made a boat,
Lord knows how the fuck its staying afloat
Last year I cried too many times.
He names the friends he’s lost and the lives taken: ‘Flipz told me someone died in Heath/ Like, please say I don’t know the kid’. Being allowed this far into Stormzy’s personal life, we can anticipate what comes next: ‘When I heard TS, I kissed my teeth/ and then I broke down in disbelief’.
Gang Signs & Prayer is a complex and deeply personal masterpiece. Whilst its final track is heart-wrenchingly vulnerable, the album stands as a defiant testament to an artist who has reconciled God and gang signs, gospel-beauty and bone-rattling grime, and made it out on top of his game.