Arguably, the grime revolution has reached its peak. Skepta’s collected a Mercury Prize, the BRIT Awards have acknowledged (not rewarded) the genre and Wiley has unleashed his supposed final album ever. Stormzy‘s come out with his debut album, after a year of silence, at the end of all of this and yet, the timing couldn’t be any more perfect.
The fact is, while Gang Signs & Prayer pays its respects to grime and champions the genre, it’s more than that. In an interview with The Guardian, Stormzy said, “respect me the same way youre going to respect a Frank Ocean or an Adele” and that’s perhaps the best way to describe his intentions on this record. He wants to be bigger than the biggest in a movement. He wants to be one of the biggest in the world and based off this record, it’s not the craziest goal.
As far as debut artistic statements go, Gang Signs & Prayer is near flawless. “First things first, I’ve been putting in the work,” he raps over a dark, twinkling Mura Masa beat on album opener First Things First. From the get-go you can see the fire in Stormzy’s belly. He’s got stories to tell and he wants to make sure as many people hear them as possible.
From the beginning, people warmed to Stormzy. Shut Up which originated as a freestyle flew into the top 10 in the UK off the back of a Christmas campaign to get it to number one. Even Know Me From, his first big single, cracked the top 50 at a time when not even Skepta was penetrating the UK charts. He brings humour, cockiness and intensity in equal measures, less likely to intimidate those that found Kanye’s 2015 BRITs performance scary while also satisfying the hardcore grime fans.
Shut Up features at the tail end of the record almost as a celebration of the song that took him to new heights. He’s gotten even better since then though. First single Big For Your Boots shares the same energy while also simultaneously assuring people it’s ok to like Adele and threatening to hit someone with a crowbar. The London MC has a big heart but he can also scare when he needs to. It’s that juxtaposition that makes GSAP so successful. “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted,” he raps on Cold – a perfect example of how to be cocky, clever and intimidating.
There are a lot of ideas on GSAP. He raps about his upbringing, relationships, faith and fame while combining grime, gospel, hip-hop and R&B. He samples NAO, includes a Lily Allen hook, uses a recording of a conversation with Crazy Titch and gathers guests from Ghetts to Kehlani. On paper, it should be a mess, an example of what happens when you’re offered everything and take it all. But, it’s not. Stormzy’s own personal style and vision is so strong that he could’ve covered Susan Boyle and made it work.
We go from haunting, heavy street anthem Bad Boys with Ghetts and J HUS to the mellow keys of the gospel-flavoured Blinded By Your Grace and yet it works. Kehlani sits alongside Lily Allen on a slow-jam about a fractured relationship and it’s a triumph. Next minute, he’s telling his Mum, “Your son did good,” on a genuinely touching moment 100 Bags. By the end of the record, you feel like you know Stormzy’s many dimensions which is exactly what a successful debut should do.
For all his bravado, it’s a testament to Stormzy that he’s not too big to strip everything back and get sentimental on gospel anthem Blinded By Your Grace Pt.2. The track is the MCs Ultralight Beam moment, a shining centrepiece that soars with an inspired MNEK verse. It’s celebratory, fragile and spiritual, uplifting even those that aren’t religious.
Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE was so successful because it introduced us to Ocean as a person rather than a famous person. It was intimate, honest and autobiographical, acknowledging where he’d come from and remaining wary of the future. Stormzy’s GSAP succeeds in the same way. Sure, sonically it’s different but like Frank, he never gets too big for his boots. He wants to be the best, but he’s not going to do that by telling people, he’s going to do it by showing. GSAP shows that he’s on the right path. It’s not a grime record, it’s a Stormzy record and one that does an incredible job of showing us that the MC is an emotional, complex person with ambition.
“This is all I got so lay me bare,” is a bold way to end an album but never has a truer statement been made, in the context of GSAP.