The eagerly-awaited debut album from new grime kingpin Stormzy could have been a victory lap: a celebration of his remarkable rise to the top, delivering more of the hard bangers that brought him unlikely chart success. Instead, the gospel-tinged Gang Signs & Prayer feels like the beginning of an adventurous new chapter for an artist determined not to be pinned down, writes Alex Macpherson.
Midway through Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy cedes the mic for an interlude from a radio presenter. Plot twist: it’s not a pirate station host shouting out callers’ numbers, but the conversational tones of Heart FM’s late-evening soul specialist Jenny Francis. “Oh yeah, I definitely love that one. That was Stormzy, with the smoochy ‘Velvet’.” It’s a neat demonstration of three things: firstly, Stormzy’s willingness to commit to a mainstream crossover opportunity; secondly, his self-awareness and love of aesthetics that aren’t necessarily deemed cool (see also: two separate fanboy shout-outs to Adele). And thirdly, it’s further evidence that the MC born Michael Omari doesn’t feel the need to hark back to signifiers of authenticity from grime generations gone.
Francis isn’t wrong, either. ‘Velvet’, which transforms a sampled low-key interlude from Nao’s debut album into a swooning R&B epic, is indeed smoochy. It’s R&G, but not as we know it. Instead of trying to recreate the digital stabs and imperious iciness of Terror Danjah’s productions, Stormzy throws a curveball by embracing R&B’s lush romanticism. Swelling synths and twinkling piano make for a track that could easily sit alongside, say, Ciara’s ‘Body Party’, and there’s something of The-Dream in his visions of opulent treats that never stray too far from real life.
‘Big For Your Boots’ is an instant classic, propelled entirely by the twists and turns of Stormzy’s voice
Stormzy’s decision to break out a singing voice we never knew he possessed may – like myriad rappers in 2017 – have been inspired by Kanye West, but there’s none of the pinched faux-sensitivity of the Drake generation here: it’s pure commitment to feeling, as it is a few tracks later when Kehlani joins him for the inevitable break-up melancholy on ‘Cigarettes & Cush’. This also enables Stormzy to pull off the album’s most unexpected facet – though given the title, perhaps overt religiosity shouldn’t have been that surprising. Gang Signs & Prayer is an album that does exactly what it says on the tin. ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ is a two-part gospel devotional – the second, bringing in MNEK, rouses itself to dramatic fervour with an unashamedly OTT guitar solo – on which Stormzy sounds positively liberated by his faith. Gospel has had something of a moment in rap over the past year – think Chance The Rapper and, indeed, part of West’s The Life Of Pablo – and Stormzy’s evocation of community church centres brings to life an element of London life hitherto unremarked on in grime.
Between R&B, gospel and the dread presence of major label over-producer Fraser T Smith’s clumsy hand, you might be forgiven for wondering how much of a grime album Gang Signs & Prayers is. Stormzy goes hardest on four new bangers, judiciously spaced out across the running time, and if the story elsewhere is his emotional and sonic range, he demonstrates the quantum leap his skills have taken on this more traditional territory. ‘Big For Your Boots’ is an instant classic single, and it’s propelled entirely by the twists and turns of his own voice: Spyro’s skeletal beat is the perfect backdrop, but it mostly gets out of Stormzy’s way as he rattles through rhymes on top of rhymes, ducks and weaves with vocal tics and generally unloads the full force of his charisma on the track.
‘Cold’ builds on this, switching between staccato barking and smoother drawling with ease over a juddering, oscillating riddim. Best of all, Spyro gets his time to shine on ‘Return Of The Rucksack’, a ridiculous rave-up of a beat which sounds like it’s permanently on the verge of turning into ‘No Good (Start The Dance)’. Stormzy also exhumes the two-year-old ‘Shut Up’, tucked away as the penultimate track like a bonus cut. It’s as brilliant as ever, and there can never be too many reminders that he managed to get ‘Functions On The Low’ into the Christmas top 10, but it also brings home just how much more nimble and versatile Stormzy’s flow is these days.
Stormzy is a complex, multi-layered artist willing and capable of following his own sui generis path, taking listeners into unexpected places.
Last year, Skepta released a solid, efficient album that was lauded as a masterpiece. Konnichiwa hit its spots and didn’t drop the ball, and it was the album the grime scene needed to go to a new level at a time when its single-based renaissance was coming to a head. But it wasn’t a next-level work in itself, nor was it a particularly compelling personal statement. Gang Signs & Prayer might not quite be a masterpiece either: its gospel side may be admirable, but how often listeners return to it might depend on their own tolerance of religion; the ratio of bangers to sentimentality is ultimately tipped a little too heavily towards the latter, with tracks like ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ sagging. The J Hus collaboration, ‘Bad Boys’, also doesn’t quite take off and feels like a missed opportunity in light of the growing afrobeats x grime hybrid scene.
But what the album succeeds at is establishing Stormzy as a complex, multi-layered artist willing and capable of following his own sui generis path and taking listeners into unexpected places. And it feels real, too: not in terms of superficial “emotional” signifiers we’ve heard a hundred times before, but in his willingness to dig deep and come out sounding earnest – not the most on-trend adjective in 2017. Gang Signs & Prayer opens with Stormzy on ‘First Things First’ calling himself a “rebel with the cause”, fighting depression, gang troubles and London racism (points for a lyric refusing to let DSTRKT’s door policy die). That cause is made explicit on the very next track, ‘Cold’. “All my young black kings, rise up man, this is your year / all my young black queens right there, it’s been a long time coming I swear.” This is the beating heart of the album, and it’s what marks it out as such an uncompromising statement.