Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, was still in primary school when early grime pioneers like Wiley and Dizzee Rascal were first making names for themselves. The genre’s speedy, off-kilter rhythms and energetic, irreverent rapping style soon became the lifeblood of London’s youth culture, particularly for kids from black, working-class families. Stormzy was one of those kids, and he’s part of the first generation to grow up with grime. Now, at just 23, he’s become the first grime artist to top the UK albums chart – on his own independent label, no less.
Despite this meteoric rise to mainstream popularity, however, Gang Signs & Prayer (GSAP) sees Stormzy sounding reflective, vulnerable and deeply personal. Although he deals with his newfound fame and success and doesn’t shy away from the bouncy, confrontational style that put him in the spotlight to begin with, he also tackles headier topics like love, mortality and faith.
GSAP almost feels like a mini-memoir, a summation of who Stormzy is, what he stands for and what it took for him to reach this point. In trying to achieve that, Stormzy refuses to let himself be limited by genre boundaries. GSAP is unabashedly a grime album, but it also touches on gospel, R&B and neo-soul. One track will be a braggadocios rebuke to critics, while another will make a humble tribute to God’s grace. “I’m not a one-dimensional character”, Stormzy said in an interview with Fader. GSAP is proof.
It’s worth noting that this more emotional style is new territory for Stormzy, and it’s not always totally successful. For one thing, Stormzy is a much better rapper than he is a singer, and some of the R&B numbers on GSAP just feel a little trite and clumsy. ‘Cigarettes & Cush’, for example, benefits from a warm, breezy hook which Stormzy duets over with Lily Allen, but it’s let down by some mawkish, cloying verses and an awkward ending with analogises the end of a relationship to not having any more weed in the house.
But when it works, it really works, like when Stormzy opens up about his absentee father on closer ‘Lay Me Bare’. His rage is raw and palpable, and when he says that he won’t let go and wants to “keep the pain”, we feel that pain, too. Conversely, Stormzy’s tribute to his single mother on ‘100 Bags’ is genuinely heartfelt and moving. Buoyed by a quietly triumphant harp-driven instrumental and an angelic, high-pitched vocal sample, Stormzy expresses his reverence for his “Ghanaian queen”, saying “your son’s got your back” and swearing there’ll be “no more broken promises”.
Despite the album’s variety, Stormzy doesn’t let us forget that his roots are in old-school grime and always have been. The lead single from this album is ‘Big for Your Boots’, a track co-produced by veteran grime beatmaker Sir Spyro and featuring Stormzy as the lively, cheeky personality that his fans know and love. Stormzy has never been the most innovative rapper – his flows are often fairly repetitive and simplistic – but what he lacks in technical skill he more than makes up for in his sheer ebullience and energy.
What’s more, Stormzy makes sure that these tracks have a message – one of the most memorable lines on the album is when Stormzy shouts out his “young black kings” and “young black queens” on ‘Cold’, telling them to “rise up” because “this is our year”. What makes this track even more powerful is that, as Stormzy says, it’s not “a political ‘conscious rap’ song – it’s a bubbly, fun, vibrant grime track”, and yet that political message still fits. It’s a reminder that grime has always been quietly political, promoting and affirming black identity in the face of a culture that diminishes it.
GSAP isn’t a perfect debut, but it’s an impressive, complex and unvarnished self-portrait that showcases Stormzy in both light and darkness, refusing to shy away from difficult topics or to let itself be pigeonholed. It sets the benchmark for a new generation of grime artists, and proves that Stormzy is a multifaceted, multitalented MC with a message.