Stormzy – Gang Signs And Prayer Review
1. “First Things First”
3. “Bad Boys” Feat. Ghetts and J Hus
4. “Blinded By Your Grace Part 1″
5. “Big For Your Boots”
6. “Velvet / Jenny Francis Interlude”
7. “Mr. Skeng”
8. “Cigarettes & Cush” Feat. Kehlani
9. “21 Gun Salute Interlude” Feat. Wretch 32
10. “Blinded By Your Grace Part 2″ Feat. MNEK
11. “Return Of The Rucksack”
12. “100 Bags”
13. “Don’t Cry For Me” Feat. Raleigh Ritchie
14. “Crazy Titch Interlude”
15. “Shut Up”
16. “Lay Me Bare”
The grime scene has finally made it. Without bending over backwards for mainstream acceptance or abandoning its bleak, but playful garage inspired sonics, the underdog genre is now a global phenomenon. Despite this success, the new generation should not rest on their laurels. Hot sounds come and go like fads. It might be painful for lifelong fans to hear, but for listeners in America, Asia or even mainland Europe, Grime will pass in and out of fashion: for the scene to thrive rather than survive it needs artists to become stars, and for those stars to create music that is dynamic, original, meaningful and modern.
In 2016 Skepta showcased the power of tenure. Konnichiwa found its name on all the right lips and earned plaudits despite playing like a greatest hits tape mixing modern bangers (“Man (Gang)”), vintage classics (“That’s Not Me”) and regrettable scene chasing gropes for stateside success (“Ladies Hit Squad”). Skeppy’s breakthrough moment was both thrilling and stifling safe. It was a scene wide celebration in the face of burgeoning mainstream acceptance – and everyone was falling in line, from Drizzy Drake to Apple Music (but noticeably not the Brit Awards). Rather than changing the game, Skepta built a platform for the next generation – and it’s charismatic leader, Stormzy – to stand upon as they reached for the stars.
Gangs Signs and Prayer is Stormzy’s judgement day. He is so hyped and seen as such a sure fire superstar that he already has a legion of Twitter trolls anxiously awaiting his first misstep. The self-effacing Londoner certainly knows how to keep his audience on edge. After firing off banger after banger and displaying an almost inescapable level of media saturation in 2015, suddenly, Stormzy went dark. Disappearing for the best part of 2016, Londoners woke up one morning in 2017 to find an array of all black build boards dominating the skyline with mysterious messages announcing the arrival of Stormzy’s debut.
Likeable, charming and imposing – this we knew, but Stormzy can now be labelled undeniably bold. Taking it one step further and breaking with Skepta’s model, the hits of old are noticeably absent from GSAP’s tracklist. Sure, “Shut Up” makes the cut (and mercifully it does fit the lyrical themes of the LP), but “Scary”, “Standard”, “Know Me From” and pretty much all of Stormzy’s famous freestyles have been left on the cutting room floor. The message reads loud and clear: Stormzy wants to make a statement by living or dying on his artistry in the here and now, rather than riding on the coattails of past popularity.
The good news is that Stormzy proudly stands and delivers on his debut. Gang Signs and Prayer is a well rounded debut that stays true to grime’s sonics while adding a mainstream gloss to the production that may blunt the instrumental edge, but fits well with Stormzy’s gregarious personality. The Londoner is buoyant, syllables springboard with an ease and charm even in his darkest moments. There is unmistakable sense that this all comes so easily to Storms. So when he flippantly dismisses his “dickhead” rivals (“Mr. Skeng”) it feels wholly justifiable, after all, how could they possibly rival a man who was born to be king?
Don’t mistake his ease for apathy however. Stormzy goes in hard on his haters (one of the album’s central themes) explaining in detail how his feet may be rooted firmly on the ground, but at a moments notice, they can boot any wannabe badman’s head from his shoulders. Despite his dexterity and brutality, Stormzy’s debut does feel noticeably light on direction. As the title suggest, Gangs and God occupy much of an LP that focuses almost exclusively on reasserting the stars authenticity in the face of haters (“Return Of The Rucksack”) and detailing the brutality he can dish out on one hand (“Cold”), and praising his mother (“100 Bags”) and thanking the Lord on the other (“Blinded By The Light”). These themes are certainly not revolutionary and this album fails to rival Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner in terms of offering an insight into a turbulent and bleak existence. This has been a common complaint in this golden age of grime: sure the tracks might be hot, but where’s the wordplay and social conscience to rival Dizzee, Wiley and Kano?
Stormzy focus is elsewhere. His stardom is based on the cult of personality and GSAP goes some length to telling his story. His album deftlyy toes the line between macho street level posturing and homely love of mother and wifey. The album’s most touching moments come when Stormzy looks within rather than without. When he bravely admits to depression and self-doubt (“Don’t Cry For Me”), when he allows the anger to overflow in the face of his fly-by-night father hitting him up for cash (“Lay Me Bare”) and those surprisingly intimate throwaway lines that slip between the cracks (“Know that I pray that my bro stops betting, man that roulette machine won’t let him”). Personality is key and no matter how much cruelty he espouses, it’s hard to avoid warming to a man who passionately sings to his lover (in faltering voice) and proudly admits to loving Adele. Stormzy has wisely learnt a lesson from Drake, rather than trying to present the image of an emotionless gangbanger, Stiff Chocolate embraces the foibles of his own personality: if his enemies want to mock him, they’re welcome, but they’ll only looked like Neanderthals by comparison.
Still, for all the positives, Gang Signs and Prayer occasional succumbs to the drift as over earnest hymns to the lord and mid tempo stabs at severity fall flat. Equally, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the album isn’t stacked with obvious Top 10 hits. There are plenty of conventional hooks and bounce along rhythms, but little to suggest Stormzy will be rivalling Drizzy or Ed Sheeran for commercial dominance any time soon. Ultimately, GSAP is at its best when Stormzy is riding the riddim and uncorking multi-layered metaphors that will have the obsessive scribes of Rap Genius licking their lips and racing to their keyboards.
Stormzy might be at his incendiary best when he steps on a straight forward grime beat and goes for his opponent’s throat, but the ultimate triumph of his debut lies in broadening Grimes’ horizons. GSAP isn’t the kind of artistic statement destined to revolution the genre itself, but nor is it a record content to stay in its lane. By embracing vulnerability when crooning to his lover, discussing his deep psychological struggles, battling to reconcile his love of god with his life on the streets, and by so openly bringing his family into his music, Stormzy has proven without question that insecurity and humanity can sit side by side with machismo in modern grime. His music is subtly daring too; when the tempo drops and the mood lightens, it is not in a failed attempt to broaden his appeal, but in a soulful and sophisticated effort to merge sonics and mood.
Gang Signs and Prayer is not a flawless masterwork, but it is a triumph. The moment when grime’s greatest cult of pop personality bared his soul and grabbed his gat simultaneously: Stormzy is still jokes, but make no mistake, he is the real deal.