Stormzy isn’t someone I’d usually listen to, and I’m not alone.
Everyone I have recommended this album to has said the exact same thing. Everyone has heard of Stormzy, his popularity is ever growing, you may even know some lyrics to Shut Up, which was really the only song I had heard from the 23 year old Grime artist until now.
All I can say is I was very pleasantly surprised.
Gang Signs and Prayer opens with an atmospheric opening statement “First Things First”, allowing Stormzy to firmly tell listeners who he is and why that matters, before exploding onto short and sweet “Cold” with it’s fanfare like brass sounds and fast beats. Add another underwhelming but otherwise serviceable song about “Bad Boys” being,well, bad and you have quite the trilogy of tracks that sound dominating and authoritative: staple sounds and themes to the Grime genre.
Then out of fucking nowhere gooey soft piano and OH MY GOD STORMZY IS SINGING.
No beat to be heard, no rapping about labels, paigons and the hood.
Just a soft melodic gospel-like track “Blinded By Your Grace (Part 1)” led merely by a piano and Stormzy singing. As you can probably tell it blew my mind and it made me feel really guilty that this became my favourite song on the album. His voice was never going to be flawless but I must admit it totally works, with such a low voice it feels smooth and filled with soul that you just want to lay back and let it flow through you.
Now this song and many others on this album will most likely be received as sacrilege to Grime and Hip Hop purist listeners, and I can totally see why. A lot of Grime listeners want to listen to a Stormzy album to hear hard hitting no holds barred beats, rhymes and attitude, not a slow piano song about love and faith.
No matter though as “Big For Your Boots” (Read: BWEUTS) swiftly follows, bringing us back to grime’s safe place of unrelenting beats and braggadocio which is both catchy and phenomenally put together, even if the way he says boots is ridiculous and shouts our Adele.
Back to the silky smooth “Velvet”, airy light Drake-like track sampling NAO and again utilizing more singing from Stormzy and backing singers, which I also love.
The album takes one more foray into classic Grime with “Mr Skeng” before going for a hat trick of slow R’n’B gospel like tracks with the insanely catchy “Cigarettes and Cush”, “21 Gun Salute” and part two of “Blinded By Your Grace” which features MNEK’s incredible pipes. Again, these songs are my favourites on the album, which I am ashamed to admit because it is a Grime album and we’re supposed to be listening to Grime and why is there so much singing and catchy grooves and happiness, oh my god.
This is both the album’s blessing and weakness.
On the one hand, these songs are amazingly produced and super catchy and appeal to my love of soul, gospel and R’n’B, yet on the other it really throws the balanced off the album.
We the listener are dragged from genre to genre on every other song to the point where it feels like this one album is actually a mash up of two very different sounding albums.
The album’s home stretch of songs are all great, especially closing song “Lay Me Bare” which truly opens up Stormzy’s issues and insecurities to the listener which is rarely seen in this genre, where bravado is king rather than vulnerability. If anything, the whole album acts as a conversation, one which Stormzy wants with us all. The deep personal quality of the lyrics and concepts of songs really let you get to know the cheeky wide grinned grime artist before we get to the real heart of the man who feels and hurts like the rest of us.
Ultimately this album is going to be a marmite record for many, with listeners throughout the grime spectrum either loving or hating the new themes and sounds in this album.
All I know is I loved it.
Stormzy – Gang Signs and Prayer: 8/10