Stormzy has become a role model to many but he’s quickly discovered it’s impossible to keep everyone happy
“I have my reasons and life has its lessons / I tried to be grateful and count all my blessings / But heavy is the head that wears the crown”– ‘Crown’
Reflecting on Stormzy’s rise – from being at the forefront of grime’s 2014 resurgence, cultivating a large global fan base through his endearing social media presence and viral YouTube videos, to his countless awards and the chart-topping success of his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer, the first number one grime album, to him gracing the cover of Time magazine as one of the US news weekly’s “next generation leaders” and consistently appearing on The Sunday Times’ annual ‘Rich List’ – it’s difficult to argue that Stormzy is not currently wearing the “crown”. In recent memory, not since Tinie Tempah’s success at the start of the decade has grime & Black British music had a mainstream star of Stormzy’s ilk. With him releasing his sophomore album and announcing the “Heavy Is The Head 2020 World Tour” – 57 concerts spanning five continents (unfortunately curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic) – Stormzy should feel like a man on top the world right now. However, if the chorus of ‘Crown’, the introspective second single from Stormzy’s sophomore album, Heavy Is The Head, which paraphrases Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, is anything to go by, Stormzy has found the crown is, indeed, heavy. To quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “with great power, comes great responsibility”; Stormzy’s every move comes under intense scrutiny, whether it is publishing his memoir, Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far, or partnering with Adidas on a tracksuit, the £400 price of which received online backlash. Since 2017’s Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy has done everything but release music and ‘Big Michael’, the intro track of Heavy Is The Head, even opens with a voicenote of a restless fan calling Stormzy a “dickhead” and “fuckin’ pussyhole” for not doing so. Those begging for new music should rest assured; the track ends with, “Big Michael’s back, your time’s up” – Big Michael’s back to assert himself as a young Black king ready to affirm his status as the UK’s number one rapper.
“When Banksy put the vest on me, felt like God was testing me”– ‘Audacity’
The cover of Heavy Is The Head shows Stormzy looking down at the monochrome Union Jack stab proof vest, which Banksy designed, in his hands. Much of the album centres around Stormzy’s groundbreaking Glastonbury 2019 performance. Donning the stab proof vest, Stormz made history by becoming the first Black British rapper to headline the festival and, at 25 years old, he was also the second youngest solo act ever to do so (the youngest being a 24 year old David Bowie in 1971). The iconic set clearly means a lot to Stormzy – “Big Mike, I done Glastonbury / Flashbacks from Glastonbury / Love it when it all comes back to me”, he raps on ‘Audacity’, the album’s second track which features king of drill and fellow Ghanaian, Headie One – and he’s described it as his “defining moment” and the “pinnacle” of his career thus far.
Unfortunately for Stormzy, as a result of the impossibly high standards he’s set for himself, including headlining Glastonbury off the strength of one album, it’s difficult not to listen to Heavy Is The Head with an especially critical ear; what would be considered good for another artist is considered mediocre from Stormzy. As such, I was left underwhelmed by this album. Although solid, the album is arguably somewhat dull and forgettable, and you’d be forgiven for expecting more from the man supposedly wearing the crown. Following their public breakup, Stormzy’s heartfelt apology for “disrespecting” presenter and TV personality Maya Jama (and simultaneously jeopardising the #BlackMenDontCheat movement) on the penultimate track injected some drama and excitement into the album. The tune almost has you wanting to sabotage your next relationship so you can really feel the bars but, ‘Lessons’ notwithstanding, outside of the previously released singles, there are few standout tracks on the album.
Although I generally try to avoid using US artists as an implicit standard against which to measure UK artists’ success, when I reviewed Gang Signs & Prayer, I compared Stormzy to Chance the Rapper. The basis of the comparison raises the question of how both artists would return after giving us uplifting music in Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer and Chance’s Coloring Book. Stormzy did a better job of making a return than Chance did with the hot mess that was his 2019 album, The Big Day, but Heavy Is The Head still largely touches on much of the same subject matter we’ve all heard before on Gang Signs & Prayer; namely, Stormzy’s love for his family (he dedicates the track ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’ to his sister, DJ Rachael Anson) and his Christian faith, which is referenced throughout (the bridge of ‘Rainfall’, sung by Tiana Major9, interpolating Mary Mary’s classic, ‘Shackles (Praise You)’, is just one example of the album’s heavy gospel influence). Another area which we’ve heard Stormzy touch on previously is his struggle with his mental health, which he addresses in most detail on ‘One Second’, the poignant track featuring US R&B superstar, H.E.R. Stormzy uses the track to vent his anger at those seeking to capitalise on and commodify his openness and vulnerability – referring to an incident in 2017 where, after having refused to be on the cover in the past, NME magazine published an issue regarding depression for which Stormzy’s image was used without his permission: “I am not the poster boy for mental health / I need peace of mind, I need to centre self / The cover of the NME, that shit made me resent myself / There’s people tryin’ to spread the word and people that pretend to help”. Bars like, “the spirit of depression never sleeps”, on this track, and “I bottle up and then I spill it to my therapist” on ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’, in particular are proof that Stormzy will always deliver honest and personal content through his music.
With that being said, the album is still missing a certain je ne sais quoi – it’s difficult to articulate exactly what. Despite Stormzy kicking off the album with, “said I went mainstream, suck your mum”, it can’t be denied that the music is lacking a certain authenticity and realness. To put it frankly, the price has gone up; with Stormzy increasingly seeing commercial success in his career, even he would probably admit it’s now more of a struggle to tap into the rawness of the ‘WickedSkengMan’ Stormzy previously seen on tracks like ‘Shut Up’. Without meaning to box him in, there’s not much on this album to satisfy grime purists. In contrast, there’s plenty of mainstream-oriented tunes which feature lots of singing. Stormzy addresses this on ‘Pop Boy’, featuring Manchester newcomer, Aitch (who has also seen mainstream commercial success in the last year), and it’s ironic that, on the hook, Stormzy refers to Top Boy – “Ayy, in my city, I’m the top boy / And I didn’t even have to be in Top Boy” – given that the three London rappers that starred in Netflix’s reboot of the popular series all dropped better albums in 2019 than Stormzy’s, in Dave’s PSYCHODRAMA, Kano’s Hoodies All Summer and Little Simz’ GREY Area. There’s a real duality to Stormzy’s music, which he acknowledges on ‘Big Michael’ – “One week it’s ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ / Next week it’s bang you in your face” – however, to this album’s detriment, he doesn’t do as good a job of cohesively blending these contrasting styles.
“And you old guys make me sick”– ‘Bronze’
Stormzy’s 2020 started with a bang and his now infamous beef with Wiley reignited grime. Outside of the obvious disrespect of telling a man to “suck his mum”, as Wiley did, and the subsequent furore and entertainment of the ensuing war of words, there’s a fundamental issue that bears mentioning. On the surface, it may seem that this is a classic case of “idols becoming rivals” and there could definitely be elements of jealousy in Wiley now taking issue with Stormzy seeing mainstream popularity despite embracing him at the start of his career. However, once you look past the distraction of Wiley’s erratic approach and incessant tweeting, you see there’s some validity to his argument. There’s something to be said because Wiley’s problem with Stormzy is not too dissimilar to part of my criticism of the album. My major gripe with this album is that I would have preferred for it to be a little more ‘Wiley Flow’, the fiercely energetic grime banger, and a little less ‘Own It’, the Ed Sheeran and Burna Boy assisted number one. By interpolating flows from Wiley’s ‘Bad ‘Em Up’ and ‘Nightbus Dubplate’, Stormzy claims ‘Wiley Flow’ pays homage to Wiley while simultaneously lauding his own accolades over the “youngers” in the scene: “If you ain’t got no platinum plaques, then I don’t wanna hear no chat about…” Whether or not listing accolades which Wiley also hasn’t achieved on a track named after him is genuine or “fake” homage, as Wiley claims, is a separate and inconsequential debate, given that Stormzy is no stranger to periodically taking aim at the older stalwarts of the genre with sly digs and since I don’t think Wiley is actually too concerned with receiving credit.
Wiley’s issue is rooted in apprehensive panic. Wiley is fiercely protective of grime culture and has previously taken issue with the likes of Drake for what he perceives as cultural appropriation. He aimed his latest tirade at Ed Sheeran, whose ‘Take Me Back to London’ collaboration with Stormzy topped the UK singles chart for five weeks in autumn. This was enough to draw Stormzy out for a brief Twitter exchange which ultimately led to back-and-forth diss tracks between the two MCs. On ‘Wiley Flow’, Stormzy asks, “how’s the best spitter in grime so commercial?” Wiley’s answer would probably be: “by selling out”. There is a worrying pattern of artists that initially cater to a grime audience attaining a level of success and then adapting their music to cater to a wider audience, effectively abandoning their original fan base. Stormzy is a multifaceted artist and has always stated he wants to be a well-rounded artist, not just a very skilled grime MC. Stormzy has always drawn on many musical influences – his YouTube, with its Frank Ocean, Justin Bieber and PARTYNEXTDOOR covers, can attest to that – however, his initial popularity stemmed from grime and his current music is a far cry from that. We’ve seen it before from artists like Tinie Tempah and, while Wiley hasn’t quite labelled Stormzy a complete sell-out, the worry is that he could disappointingly follow in those footsteps.
On the other hand, it could be argued that Wiley’s dissatisfaction is harsh criticism and the inevitable reaction of a purist uncomfortable with the exposure that comes with their niche genre expanding to reach a wider, more global audience. In their exclusive interview during the US leg of his press run promoting Heavy Is The Head, Stormzy told New York radio personality and host of The Breakfast Club on Power 105.1, Charlamagne tha God: “I’ve always said I wanna be an artist who fucking sells records, I wanna be a number one artist, I wanna be an artist who tours the world”. Stormzy has made no secret of his aspirations to top the charts and be the biggest artist worldwide, and that can’t be done if he doesn’t grow past freestyling ‘WickedSkengMan’ in the park. Unlike Tinie Tempah, however, while Stormzy makes a concerted effort to appeal to the mainstream through a more accessible sound and use of language (limited use of slang compared to J Hus, who frequently incorporates pidgin, for example), he is still a thoughtful artist and has not completely shirked his Black image, Black audience or Black music. This is evidenced by him turning down the opportunity to have his idol Jay Z (he started his Glastonbury set with a clip of a conversation between the two of them) feature on the remix of ‘Take Me Back to London’. The irony of the whole situation is that Stormzy’s two diss tracks, ‘Disappointed’ and ‘Still Disappointed’, which delivered him the victory in the beef against Wiley, were two of the best tracks he’s released in recent memory.
“They’re saying I’m the voice of the young Black youth”– ‘Crown’
Stormzy is the UK’s biggest, most digestible rapper and achieved this by connecting with fans and always giving a glimpse of his personality – an example of this is the amusing ‘Know Me From’ video, which features his mum. He has been meticulously well marketed, to the extent that white families were taking their children to his album signings across the country, something previously unheard of for a UK rapper. Stormzy doesn’t have the “luxury” of being a baby faced, blond hair, blue eyed Aitch and, given the unfortunate reality that society already perceives Black masculinity as threatening for its mere existence (a reality brought into sharp focus by the viral exchange between Amy Cooper, AKA “Central Park Karen”, and birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, which was captured on camera in May), Stormzy, a darkskin Black man, has to go the extra mile to be palatable and curate a larger than life, “big friendly giant” public persona, especially when his physique is so imposing (he stands at 6’5’’). Hence, a lot was made of the fact he achieved 6 A*s at GCSE and his potential Oxbridge candidacy, and he can regularly be seen joking on popular prime time TV chat shows, such as The Jonathan Ross Show and The Graham Norton Show.
One such television appearance was on Channel 4’s The Last Leg in 2017, during which Stormzy reflected on an incident he also refers to on Heavy Is The Head’s ‘Superheroes’ (any listeners that were trying to make their world come true as children will also recognise the interpolation of the Tracy Beaker theme tune in the song’s outro) – “All that banging on my door had my girl shook / Like, sorry officer, I only sell hooks” – where the police kicked down the door to his Chelsea home after, presumably, assuming he was a burglar. The murder of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Kentucky police is just the latest in a tragically long list highlighting the potentially disastrous, dangerous and deadly ramifications of such an interaction between a Black person and the police. As Stormzy confirmed during his sit-down with Charlamagne, the justified criticism of his hesitance to openly acknowledge the “racial undertone” of his run-in with the police when asked about the incident onmainstream TV was a significant turning point for him. Stormzy has since been increasingly intentional about how he performs, enacts and embodies his Blackness. This increased intentionality behind his identity has led to Stormzy launching a number of philanthropic initiatives centred on improving issues of racial inequality and the Black experience. On ‘Big Michael’, Stormzy raps, “And I do it for the Merky Books / Cause we’re still Taking Up Space”, referring to his #Merky Books publishing imprint, a partnership with Penguin Random House through which he aims to elevate the voices of young Black authors. One of the first books published through #Merky Books was Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s Taking Up Space: Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, which focuses on the Black experience and lack of Black representation in UK higher education.
#Merky Books is but one example of Stormzy using his platform to advocate for Black people and, in doing so, he has increasingly stepped into political spaces. Stormzy has spoken out about the disproportionate persecution of Black people over drug related crimes, called Theresa May a “paigon” during his 2017 GQ awards acceptance speech, and proclaimed “fuck the government and fuck Boris” on Heavy Is The Head’s final track and lead single, ‘Vossi Bop’. The image of a topless, rain-soaked Stormzy performing at the 2018 BRIT awards, condemning then PM Theresa May on national television over the government’s handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster, has become iconic. He refers to this multiple times on Heavy Is The Head, including on ‘Rainfall’ – “Even when I make it rain, I make a statement” – and on ‘Crown’ – “Rain falling down at the BRITs, I’m still soaked”. On ‘One Second’, Stormzy offers his perspective and provides a detailed insight into why he perceives it as his duty, given the position he’s in, to repeatedly use his position of influence to make a statement. The usefulness and effectiveness of celebrity “activism” often comes into question (and rightfully so!) but we can see that Stormzy gets it right by being selfless in enacting his activism – “When I take a stand, they say I’m ruining my brand / But I could never give a fuck that’s just my duty as a man” – and does so with remarkable humility, making sure not to centre self or to seek praise – “I don’t want no bloody stripes for it / Mummy always said if there’s a cause then I should fight for it” – while simultaneously remembering to elevate the voices and efforts of those less visible than him – “Yeah I know I said it / But there’s people fighting every day and they don’t get the credit”.
“Bruddas wanna break me down, I can’t bear it / But heavy is the head with the crown, I still wear it”– ‘Crown’
Stormzy is no stranger to criticism; bars like, “these niggas do me dirty, I can’t do the same”, on ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’ suggest that he’s very cognisant of and all too familiar with this fact. However, Wiley aside, he appears to be universally liked by his peers in the music industry. The criticism that Stormzy regularly faces is deeper than disputes within the Black British music community and, unfortunately, often has insidious, racial connotations. As Stormzy has found himself becoming an increasingly political figure (if his influence were ever in doubt, voter registration spiking by 236% in the lead-up to the last General Election after he tweeted encouraging people to vote is proof enough that Stormzy has increasingly stepped into the political sphere), he’s been targeted by the mainstream media in the same sinister manner that the likes of Raheem Sterling and other young, successful Black people have. The media recently spinning Stormzy’s words when asked by Italian newspaper La Repubblica if Britain were still a racist country (to which Stormzy replied, “definitely, 100%”) is the latest example of this. Stormzy angrily tweeted in response, calling out “publications and media outlets” for deliberately taking his words out of context to make it seem like he claimed Britain is “100% racist”. This sparked the #IStandWithStormzy hashtag trending in solidarity and led the journalist who conducted the interview to tweet its transcript for all to see. Although ITV has since apologised for misreporting, the damage had already been done in the public eye.
In an attempt to address the underrepresentation of Black students in higher education, Stormzy collaborated with Cambridge University to fully fund the tuition of two Black students in 2018. However, even this was met with criticism and sparked some controversy, which Stormzy alludes to on ‘Crown’ when he spits: “Bruddas wanna break me down, I can’t take it / I done a scholarship for the kids, they said it’s racist / That’s not anti-white, it’s pro-black”. Whether it’s adapting his music away from rapping ‘WickedSkengMan’ freestyles in order to avoid alienating new audiences with his previous content, or creating the Stormzy Scholarship, it seems there is no winning for Stormzy. The crown is weighing him down and, with Stormzy rapping, “It’s the little things in life / These are the things this thing destroyed”, to end ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’, he could be starting to lament the position he’s in.
“I am not alone in this, had to share my throne in this”– ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’
Despite my thoughts on the album itself, it’s important that we don’t take what Stormzy is doing for granted. Once the familiarity is removed, it’s possible to truly appreciate how remarkable his achievements are. Black British music has come a long way from Channel U; Stormzy is now repeatedly stepping into spaces that were never intended for or accessible to young, Black people and doing so while unapologetically representing us. Stormzy shouting out 65 Black British artists, old and new, during his Glastonbury performance is indicative of the sense of community he seeks to imbue. He’s made sure to avoid isolating anybody and is in touch with those that went before him, his contemporaries in the scene and those still to come. Stormzy’s collective approach to fulfilling his purpose of “shining a light” on all aspects of Black British culture is evident throughout the album, particularly on tracks like ‘Crown’ – “If it’s for my people, I’ll do anything to help / If I do it out of love, it’s not to benefit myself” – and ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’ – “Passing on the things we learn and sharin’ information / Always better when we stick together, came up through the grit together” – and is highlighted by his feature in the February 2019 issue of Elle UK. As he alludes to on ‘Crown’ – “Look at all these legends on the cover of Elle” – when invited to grace the cover of the magazine, Stormzy insisted on sharing the spotlight with other influential Black Brits, who might otherwise not have been afforded such an opportunity. These “legends” included models Leomie Anderson and Jourdan Dunn, boxer Joshua Buatsi and sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, aswell as poet Yrsa Daley-Ward and anti-violence activist Temi Mwale. As he raps on ‘Superheroes’, “what a flippin’ time to be a Black Brit!” Stormzy’s impact and purpose have transcended his music, as he has become a global ambassador for Black British culture and has done so by being his authentic Black self. In light of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, Stormzy’s recent commitment to donating £10 million, over the next decade, to organisations, charities and movements engaged in justice reform, Black empowerment in the UK, and the fight against racial inequality, through his #Merky label, is further testament to the fact he intends to leverage his platform and influence to effect change and have a positive cultural impact on the community. The crown may be heavy but Stormzy will continue to wear it with humility and blinding grace.