Cast your minds back a year ago and nobody was taking Stormzy seriously. He was ‘that guy’ who went big on social media and contested the 2015 Christmas number one (ultimately only reaching eighth); best known for a song quoted in ballsy playground banter or across the pub. But while ‘Shut Up’ made twenty-four-year-old Londoner Michael Owuo a viral sensation, its follow-up album Gang Signs & Prayer has made Stormzy a leading man, a versatile firecracker, and a messiah to bring grime to the masses.
‘First Things First’, the album’s opening track, puts the record straight – “I’ve been putting in the work, I’m a rebel with a cause”. It’s a promise that Stormzy delivers on, producing an eclectic debut that shows how big his potential really is. His range is bookended nicely by his two biggest singles of 2017: ‘Big For Your Boots’, a track The Guardian described as “four flawless minutes of chicken shop bravado”; and ‘Blinded By Your Grace’, which I’ll label in response as four flawless minutes of humbled gospel. Elsewhere, there’s introspection on growing up in London (‘Don’t Cry For Me’), whirlwind brass-assisted grime (‘Cold’), and a touching ode to his mother (‘100 Bags’).
There’s so much versatility that, at times, Gang Signs & Prayer feels more like a mixtape than an album. While Paloma Faith‘s collaboration with Labour journalist Owen Jones raised eyebrows, Stormzy still wins most bizarre feature of 2017 as he welcomes Choice FM presenter Jenny Francis for a smooth interlude. She guides listeners from the soft ‘Velvet’ into GSAP‘s most aggressive track, ‘Mr Skeng’. More worthy of note is the album’s closer, ‘Lay Me Bare’, a raw and angry rap for the 21st Century Man. “Like man’a get low sometimes, so low sometime / Airplane mode on my phone sometimes / Sitting in my house with tears in my face / Can’t answer the door to my bro sometimes.” His honesty is an inspiring message for the depressed and the beaten down in an industry where bravado often masks deep scars.
Deep, mature, but still fun, Gang Signs & Prayer is one of the most groundbreaking debuts of late. Most importantly, it evidences that Stormzy is no one hit wonder or ‘back-up dancer’; he’s a clever, flexible, and charming musician with something new to bring to the table.
Gang Signs & Prayer was released on 24 February via #Merky Records