Stormzy, real name Michael Omari, has had his debut album in the works for what seems nigh on a lifetime. Last month, the record was finally given a release date, a title, and a whopping 16-long track-list (including the monumental hit ‘Shut Up’ and the new lead single ‘Big for Your Boots’). Given grime’s recent explosion in the music world – i.e. Skepta having received a Mercury Prize award for his 2016 album ‘Konnichiwa‘ – Stormzy’s rapid rise to fame garnered the world’s attention, but alongside the hype surrounding his debut release, the fear of selling out his trademark swagger for a wider commercial stronghold was undoubtedly an ever-present paranoia. Despite this, the record finally having dropped last Friday is currently in a close race for a UK number 1 album this week. ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’s shows the grime star at his finest, delivering hard-hitting disses and more importantly a lesser seen, sensitive Stormzy.
Beginning with ‘First Things First’ and ‘Cold’, Stormzy doesn’t hold back from the get-go, confirming he is the new king of grime as far as things go. The lyricism is classic, the verses are solid and the slurs slyly crafted. What is truly surprising about ‘Gang Signs & Prayers‘ though, can be found in the title itself – Stormzy’s dual reliance on his urban upbringing in South London, but more centrally his religious and gospel background. For example, tracks such as ‘Velvet’ and ‘Cigarettes and Cush’ are as “smoochy” as silk according to Jenny Francis (see ‘Interlude’) and indubitably prove that “man [that] thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing” were foolish to think so.
Just when the haters may think Stormzy has slipped into a Frank Ocean-esque phase though, ‘Mr Skeng’ is introduced by an interlude on the fictional Murky FM and it’s clear the grime artist has struck the perfect balance between prayers and the gang. Flitting between “WickedSkengMan” (‘Bad Boys’ feat. Ghetts and J Hus, and ‘Return of the Rucksack’), and the ‘real Mike’ (‘Blinded by your Grace (parts 1 and 2)’ and ‘100 Bags’) demonstrate Stormzy has modestly earned his crown rather than rode the wave of grime’s surge to the mainstream. Specifically a tribute to his mother on ‘100 Bags’ for bringing him up in a fractured family, the artist deviates dramatically from his angry fire-y flow found on classic ‘Shut Up’ – the penultimate track on the debut, and notably present without any need for justification why.
Closing the record, ‘Lay Me Bare’, literally reveals a Stormzy that the music world hasn’t seen, nor will until they’ve heard this track. Divulging his troublesome bout with depression last year during his erratic rise to stardom, and his troubled relationship with his father (who walked out on him as a child, and for the first time seeing him in years, asked for a helping hand rather than an apology), the song is a dramatic finale, but solidifies his place in the music scene as a true artist. As he croons bitterly, but with nevertheless a sense of new-found empowerment: “One more time I’ll make it clear. This some shit I hate to share, escape this life or pay the fare, grab this gun and aim it there, shoot my pain and slay my fear, before I die, I say my prayer“, one can only hope Stormzy’s debut isn’t the end all and be all of grime’s biblical rise.
‘Gang Signs & Prayers‘ is out now via #Merky Records.
Track-listing is as follows….
1. First Things First
3. Bad Boys ft. J Hus & Ghetts
4. Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1
5. Big For Your Boots
6. Velvet / Jenny Francis (Interlude) ft. Jenny Francis
7. Mr Skeng
8. Cigarettes & Cush ft. Kehlani
9. 21 Gun Salute ft. Wretch 32
10. Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2 ft. MNEK
11. Return of the Rucksack
12. 100 Bags
13. Don’t Cry For Me ft. Raleigh Ritchie
14. Crazy Titch (Interlude) ft. Crazy Titch
15. Shut Up
16. Lay Me Bare