The pressure was on and, at the tail-end of 2016, Stormzy went AWOL
Over recent years, the UK grime & urban scene has had a renaissance and one man has been at the forefront of this wave – the WickedSkengMan live in the flesh, Stormzy (Michael Omari Jr.) In addition to his raw musical talent, Stormzy’s omnipresence on social media: uploading daily Snapchat stories, tweeting regularly, and releasing viral videos (the Stormzy hype reached its peak with the ‘Shut Up’ video, which propelled him to 8th place in the Christmas 2015 UK Singles charts), has led to him generating such a large global fan base. Stormzy had emerged as the ‘chosen one’ of the new wave of grime artists and, to justify this hype, he simply had to deliver a hard-hitting debut album. The pressure was on and, at the tail-end of 2016, Stormzy went AWOL. He de-activated all his social media accounts and cancelled all but one of his remaining live shows, seemingly to finish his highly anticipated album. After a few months of silence, Stormzy’s social media started flickering back to life and he launched a mysterious billboard campaign across London. The release of the album’s lead single, ‘Big For Your Boots’, soon followed. Announcement of a UK tour (now sold out) and a string of surprise performances later, including joining Ed Sheeran on stage at the Brits to perform a remix of Sheeran’s number one banger ‘Shape of You’, and Stormzy’s debut album is finally here.
Stormzy begins the album by getting a few things off his chest on the opening track, ‘First Things First’. Using his signature aggressive flow over a raw, dark beat, Stormzy addresses a number of issues, from his struggle with depression to misinterpretation of his lyrics by mainstream media: “LBC’s trynna black ball me / And trynna blame your boy for knife crime”. Talking to The Fader, Stormzy said he used this track to “deal with all these people chatting shit”. He wanted the album to start like a “punch in the face”; and it did.
One thing is very clear from this album, Stormzy has three main pillars in his life to lean on when he’s struggling or feeling low: his friends/ family (his heart-warming admiration for his mum, in particular, is evident throughout the album), his girlfriend, and God. When he’s not spitting venomous bars aimed at anonymous paigons who have pissed him off, Stormzy dedicates the rest of this album to them. Tracks like ‘Velvet/ Jenny Francis (Interlude)’ and ‘Cigarettes & Cush’ sound like an extended love letter to his girlfriend, and he even raps about marriage on ’21 Gun Salute’. ‘100 Bags’ is a truly wonderful track, the sort of track that will melt fans’ hearts and make them want to call their mums just to say “I love you”. It begins with a voicemail message from his mum, praying that he had a blessed day. Myself, and many other Ghanaians, can probably attest to receiving a similar message. Finally, Stormzy’s dedication to his Christian faith it is abundantly clear throughout the album. He raps on ‘Velvet/ Jenny Francis (Interlude)’, “The boys wanna tease at my faith / That’s just another reason to pray”. Stormzy is like a UK version of Chance the Rapper: they’re the same age, they’re both absolutely winning right now, they both seem to be well-grounded characters, universally liked by their peers in the music industry, and both are unafraid to remain independent and use their music to shine a light on their faith and their relationship with God.
It’s difficult to categorise this album, and that is a testament to Stormzy’s versatility as an artist. It is a grime album in the loosest sense of the term and you can’t help but feel that this was intentional. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Stormzy stressed that he wants the same respect as artists like Frank Ocean or Adele. In other words, Stormzy is not here for the critics that want to put him in the box of “grime MC”. He is an artist in the truest sense of the word and this album is a beautiful blend of genres that betrays the fact that Stormzy’s artistry is influenced by a wide range of music. Listeners can tell that every detail of this album has been meticulously planned, from his flawless return to the scene and the build-up to its release, to the choice of guest artists who enhance every track they’re featured on. We’re treated to smooth, jazzy production on ‘Cigarettes & Cush’, gospel on ‘Blinded By Your Grace’, and we hear him sing over a chopped and screwed sample of Nao’s ‘Intro (Like Velvet)’ on ‘Velvet/ Jenny Francis (Interlude)’. Of course, the album also has plenty of bars and high-energy grime bangers, like ‘Cold’ and ‘Return of the Rucksack’. With its hook, “Dickhead yute and a dickhead crew / Getting gassed up by your dickhead friends” and bars like, “Mum, if you’re listening, close your ears / But tell them paigons suck my dick / I’ve had enough of them, they all piss me off”, Mr. Skeng in particular makes me want to slap a dickhead in the face and pray for him after. I have to admit that my parents tell me to read my bible everyday but it took listening to a 6’5’’ grime MC from Croydon mentioned bible verses in a bar (“Brother, I’m good, I stay with the lord / Bible carrier, that’s my sword / Matthew 12, so I don’t talk / John 19’s why I never got caught”) for me to actually opened it. With this album, Stormzy somehow found a way for ‘gospel-grime’ to make sense.
On the final track, ‘Lay Me Bare’, we see Stormzy at his most vulnerable as he gives us an insight into his constant battle with his own demons. He addresses the resentment he still holds towards his absent father and further details his struggles with depression and his faith. On the last track in particular, Stormzy has humanised the stereotype of the ‘angry black man’. Something I found particularly inspiring is Stormzy’s call to action for “young Black Kings”. His message is simple, “if you want something, just go and fucking do it”, and he’s leading by example by remaining independent and launching his #Merky label. As Stormzy describes it, “Black people have been getting twanged for the longest”. Stormzy has recognised the influence he currently has over younger generations and has used his position and responsibility to prove that a group of young Black boys can be successful. On a lighter note, Stormzy also “made dark skin sexy again”, and for that I’ll always be grateful. The release of this album feels like it could be a very big moment for the grime scene, similar to how Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner album was important for the genre. Time will tell if Crazy Titch’s prediction that Stormzy’s “about to take it [grime] from a second rate genre to a first rate genre” will come true. I can’t help but agree with Ghetts, who ends his verse on ‘Bad Boys’ (my personal favourite track on the album and one which references the legendary Bashy vs. Ghetts clash) with, “It was all calm before Stormzy / Now it’s lightning”.