Year: 2017 – Producer: Stormzy/Fraser T. Smith/Sir Spyro – Label: #Merky Records – Genre: Grime
I first got hooked on Stormzy when I listened to his singles ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Know Me From’ some years ago and, although I didn’t know much about him, I saw him as the poster-boy for the new generation of grime – taking the baton from Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, and so on. But there’s actually a lot less grime on ‘Gangs Signs & Prayer’ than you would expect.
This isn’t to say that the record is devoid of grime, on the contrary, Stormzy serves up some very raw genre pieces like ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Big For Your Boots’ which are some of the strongest on the album. Not to mention the second track, ‘Cold’, which initially has a beat that’s extremely reminiscent of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy in Da Corner’ album – evidence that Stormzy is still very much the torch-bearer of grime today. It was tracks like ‘Blinded by Your Grace’, ‘Cigarettes & Kush’, and ’21 Gun Salute’ that I was really surprised by. These tracks are mainly grounded in gospel, soul, and R&B styles of music which I had never previously associated with Stormzy.
One of the bars from ‘Velvet/Jenny Francis (Interlude)’ sums up my exact thought process whilst listening to these non-grime tracks – ‘Man thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing’. And this is true; I had no idea that Stormzy could sing in this expressive and emotional tone like James Blake or Sampha but I’m not sure if this is what I want to hear from Stormzy. The important thing to note is that these soulful slow-jams aren’t necessarily bad tracks, I’d just rather they be grime bangers. I know I sound like an authoritarian that’s dictating that grime artists can only make grime but I actually hugely respect Stormzy for trying to diversify his sound. The problem lies with the fact that I like the audacity to include such tracks on the album more than the tracks themselves.
Moving on from that, another aspect of the album that stood out for me was the forever shifting emotional tone in the lyrics. The lyrics on this record radically vary from being aggressive, heartfelt, and even comical at times – which makes the listening experience so dynamic and engaging rather that it being dreadfully uniform. For instance, tracks like ‘First Things First’ and ‘Mr. Skeng’ are filled with hateful and angry bars addressed to Stormzy’s haters and there’s a genuinely cinematic and smart instance of word play in ‘Bad Boys’ when Ghetts spits – ‘It was all calm before Stormzy, now it’s lightning’. Stormzy is then able to seamlessly transition to more a personal and solemn tone on tracks like ‘100 Bags’, which is a legitimately touching number dedicated to his mother. And lastly, Stormzy is also very good at adopting a more light and comical tone in his lyricism – these bars from ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Cold’ attest to that: ‘Think they’re bad ’cause of Narcos/They’re some Netflix bad boys’ – ‘So tell Boris Johnson “suck your mum, we don’t care”‘.
All in all, I wanted to like this album much more than I do and I was ultimately disappointed. Stormzy’s flow is strong, the production is good, and, of course, ‘Shut Up’ is just an irrefutably large banger. But despite all this, I kinda wish there was more grime material and less of the R&B. I got hooked onto Stormzy because of some grime tracks I heard and that’s what I want to hear more of. My spoilt-demanding-consumer hat is very firmly on right now but it’s the plain truth – I think his grime tracks are much better than his other material. Luckily, he was quite considerate and included a few lyrics on the matter in ‘Mr. Skeng’: ‘I do rap, then I do grime/Then I do rap, then I sing and I roll right back/They said you ain’t gonna blow like that/Who gives a fuck? You know like that.’
Still, it’ll be interesting to see what he comes out with next and I’ll be sure to check it out. Either way, I can’t help but be enamoured with Stormzy’s charismatic persona on social media and, although I was disappointed, I don’t think the album is a failure – I’m already looking forward his next one.
Top Tracks: Shut Up, Cold, Mr. Skeng