3 weeks ago, Stormzy has nowhere to be seen. He was taking a break from music and who could blame him. Since blowing up thanks to his signature flow and delivery, he dropped a string of hit releases, from ‘Scary’ and ‘Standard’ to ‘WickedSkengMan 4’ and ‘Shut Up’. He toured the world, teamed up with Adidas and was a both a MOBO and BET Award winner within the space of two years. However, his return was eagerly awaited and he finally broke his silence through a number of cryptic and mysterious billboards that teased his new project. On February 1st, he announced his debut album would be entitled ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’, accompanied by opulent Last Supper inspired cover art. With so much hype around the project, has Stormzy come back in and hit a home run?
A storm is brewing on the disc’s opener and serves as a perfect statement of intent of how Stormzy wants to introduce himself. Talking on his early roots to his musical break, his raw and aggressive flow almost blends with the track as he punches with words throughout. While the instrumental stays at a steady pace and volume, you feel a tension in Stormzy’s voice that builds in its crescendo. The final thirds see him hit out at DSTRKT [“west end wanna show a ni**a love, but if it weren’t me, you’d never let my ni**as in the club, fuck DSTRKT and fuck all these nightclubs”] and say that he has got a “bone to pick”. As an intro, it certainly sets the scene for the rest of the disc – this isn’t going to be easy from Stormz, but someone has to say something.
The momentum is kept high with ‘Cold’, which had already gained hype online from being performed at live shows up and down the country last year. Its infectious hook makes it a singalong number, and its carnival backdrop shows why it went down a storm [pardon the pun!] with live audiences. This is certainly a track that will get rinsed at festivals and raves and it’s no surprise as the track is bouncy with a commercial sound throughout, similar to fellow rapper Avelino’s most recent release ‘Energy’. The pair of tracks have a relatable sound that could see mainstream success but remain authentic and powerful at their core.
“So tell Boris Johnson “suck your mum, we don’t care And tell them riot feds “oi, buss your gun? You won’t dare”
There is an air of nostalgia with the classic Ghetto rant from Lord of the Mics and his clash with Bashy [“I was fucking bad boy in jail, do your research, where’s Carlos!”] serving as the intro to the aptly named ‘Bad Boys’. Stormzy’s opening verse sees him barking through his 32, putting the game on watch, addressing the fake bad boys and haters. There is a sense that while Stormzy had previously remained quiet, this is him being let loose as his energy remains high throughout. The J Hus hook works as a perfect contradiction to this as he slows it down with his trademark ad-lib style. The addition of Ghetts is a perfect reminder of how the scene and many of his founding members have grown. This trait is perfectly portrayed with Ghetts spraying: “18 when I told man ‘Ask Carlos’, now they ask how much man car cost”. However, this is Ghetts and we are treated to his punch-mouth flow which escalates throughout.
The first surprise of ‘GSAP’ comes in the form of ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ which sees Stormzy singing his way through a gospel inspired number. It is obviously an intimate track and by its “live recording”, we feel as if we are simply a fly on the wall to this recording session. Stormzy told The FADER earlier this week that the track reminds him of Kanye West’s ‘Only One’ and its clear to see why. Both tracks have that personal aspect to them and while both strive in their respective genres, they are not afraid to experiment and these tracks serve as their introspective look into another side of them. The sequel, ‘Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2’ comes further down the track list but shares many elements of its predecessor. This time sees the inclusion of MNEK who takes the track to another level, turning it into a bona fide gospel hit and Stormzy even drops some bars, talking about his relationship with faith and god. While the topic is not something talked about a lot in the grime scene, its clear that it is a topic close to his heart and that is reflected in the overall attention to detail with this pair of tracks.
Next up is ‘Big For Your Boots’ which acted as his return to form at the beginning of the month. Produced by a dream team of Sir Spryo and Fraser T Smith, the track blends elements of classical orchestra with a thumping jungle bass and sees Stormz do what he does best and spit an unrestrained tirade of bars at his competition. The skippy beat allows him to pace throughout, and he utilises the effect of the pause to dramatic effect to hit home his lyrical punchlines. The haunting tone of the beat lends itself to a similar soundscape to ‘Scary’, but with that 2017 renewed energy. It has all the trappings of that classic grime sound whilst feeling strangely mainstream (thanks to the addition of Fraser on production).
After such a fast-paced banger, it’s a shock to the system when ‘Velvet’ drops, a trippy R&B number. Sampling UK artist NAO, the track has a very British feel to it, from NAO’s vocals to Stormzy’s laidback delivery. While the whole project has allowed Stormzy to experiment with sounds, this is the first time that the sound hasn’t worked. His switches from singing to rapping feel disjointed and don’t exuberate confidence like we would expect from Big Mike. The cameo from iconic DJ Jenny Francis at the end of the track is a great inclusion and almost make the past 3 minutes seem like an alternative universe where Stormzy is a soul singer and now were slowly waking up.
Talking of waking up, it’s hard not to be shook awake by the pounding intro to ‘Mr Skeng’ and Stormzy wastes no time with a hook that lets everybody know who he is; “Call me gunshot Mike or Mr SkengCheck one-two, man skitzed again”. This is certainly a WickedSkengMan moment as he lets loose, aiming at everyone from the corporates to the haters. This is where Stormzy feels at home, with an instrumental and a mic, and is a throwback to his earlier releases. However his sound is never stagnant and while the track has a standardised format, there is nothing standard about his delivery and work rate. As he said himself, he is an “MC first” and his confidence in his craft is what really excels.
Another feature largely publicized on the lead up to the release of ‘GSAP’ was US singer Kehlani on transatlantic cut ‘Cigarettes & Cush’. First of all, the chorus is actually sung by Stormzy and an uncredited Lily Allen, whose angelic vocals fit the laidback vibes perfectly. Then, Kehlani and Stormzy take lead on the verses of the finger-snapping, piano-led ballad; an ode to relationships held together by marijuana. It might sound a bit bizarre on paper but it works amazingly well. The track resonates a feeling of youth and fun and the topic is relatable on several levels. If this track helps Stormzy get a larger exposure on a US platform, then this track would serve as a perfect introduction to any listeners.
“What’s mine is yours, give you space to breathe here Just weed and cush, that’s a major key here”
A common theme throughout ‘GSAP’ is Stormzy’s nod to and respect of the people that came before him, those who helped lay the foundations that he is now building on. The feature for Ghetts and the interlude with a certain Mr Titch shows how much Stormzy wants to show love and that sentiment is clear with ’21 Gun Salute’, an interlude track alongside Wretch 32. Another slow number, but this lets both Wretch and Stormzy drop a reflective flow – something that the pair do so well. Playing out before the aforementioned ‘Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2’, it is a perfect introduction to the gospel number and has the same church vibe and feel to it.
Returning back from church and returning to his roots, ‘Return of the Racksack’ sees Stormzy on a 00’s grime tip with Spyro putting in the work with a heavy production. The track is a celebration of what he has achieved and his plans for the future, with topical references Lord of the Mics and Adulthood [which he also starred in] thrown in for good measure. The auto tuned backing vocals on the hook are a nostalgic throwback to the sounds of Ruff Squad, Roll Deep and N.A.S.T.Y Crew and reminds us that as well as being an MC in the game, he is a massive fan of the scene. This track isn’t for the mainstream and that’s why it is serves as one of the projects standout tracks.
However, it is the next track ‘100 Bags’ which really leads the way. A tribute to his mother, the track starts with a voicemail recording of the lady herself as it slowly fades to a melodic piano instrumental. Stormz’s relationship with his mum is a well documented one and that was shown when the pair were interviewed for the 2016 book, This Is Grime by Hattie Collins. Abigail Owuo is her sons number one supporter and Stormzy knows how much he and his mum have been through. It is a touching sentiment and plays out like an open letter, with Stormz apologising for his mistakes and telling her to go out and “buy a 100 bags”. In what is clearly an emotionally charged track, there is a clear and crisp sound to the track, making it a personal favourite.
“And when I make a song, you give me feedback I watched you plant the seed and then you reap that”
The theme of personal and emotional tracks is continued with ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, a link up with singer Raleigh Ritchie. The number is a trip down memory lane with Stormzy talking on the loss of his friend Charmz and is a powerful exploration of his relationship with his childhood south London borough. The track perfectly mixes Stormzy’s passionate verses with a rip-roaring chorus from Ritchie and feels like Stormzy is using the time as lyrical therapy. The string accompaniment from Rosie Danvers [who has previously worked with Jay Z and Kanye West] only helps take the track to the next level and turn it into a hit.
There is a break in the music with ‘Crazy Titch Interlude’ which has Big Mike calling up with Grime OG while in the booth. Since he has been incarcerated in 2006, the newer grime fan may not be aware of Titch’s antics but after this two and half minute conversation, you would certainly have a clearer idea. After claiming he is the Morpheus to Stormzy’s Neo, the Plaistow MC claims that Stormzy will be the one to elevate the grime scene from a “second rate genre to first rate genre”. The conversation is a perfect reflection of what Stormzy is trying to achieve, by blurring the lines and putting himself in the public (and possibly more mainstream) eye. His appearances on Channel 4’s The Last Leg’ and his performance at the BRITs alongside Ed Sheeran have put him on a larger platform and Titch says it best when he says that “even if you don’t know grime, you know Stormzy”.
His most viewed track to date, ‘Shut Up’ takes the penultimate spot on ‘GSAP’ and actually feels weird in its inclusion. It can’t be denied that the track was part of the reason he blew up but on comparison to the rest of the track list, it seems out of place and dare I say, outdated. ‘GSAP’ is dark, moody, emotional, thought-provoking and as he says on the disc’s opener, portrays Stormzy as a “Rebel with a cause”. While previous tracks have hit home this message, ‘Shut Up’ is humorous and playful and wouldn’t be missed in its removal.
Looking to finish the project on a high, Stormzy goes all out for his final outing ‘Lay Me Bare’. Again, the track is personal and sees him tackling the issue of walkout dads, channelling his focus and anger while opening up about his estranged father [“23 years I’m still the same. When you hear this I hope you feel ashamed”]. With a common message of vulnerability throughout ‘GSAP’, this track exemplifies this trait with Stormzy talking candidly about his break from music, his loss of his friends and the effects it has had on him [“This year’s been mad/ I lost my way/ I fell and lost my faith”]. There is also time for thank yous as well with shout outs for his best friend Flipz and his PR manager Rachel. We can infer he was having trouble pulling his album together in time, or getting it as perfect as he wanted it, and lost his confidence and creative energy, as well as his faith in God. But by the end of the song and the project, you feel that he has certainly paid his dues and his faith in all things, has been reinstated.
‘Gang Signs & Prayers’ is a celebration for Stormzy. His time away has taught him to believe in himself and his confidence in music is shown throughout the majority of the project. Themes of religion, the streets and personal tragedy are told over a blend of instrumentals, making ‘GSAP’ a very relatable project. At times, his experimentation doesn’t quite hit the mark but this is small in comparisons to stand out tracks like ‘Big For Your Boots’, ‘100 Bags’ and ‘Return of the Racksack’. Stormzy should be proud of what he has done and while his respective nods to the past era of grime have not gone unnoticed, he needs to realise that he is part of the next era. Towards the beginning of the disc, Stormzy said it best himself;
“I tried to share my throne with ’em But I can see you ain’t on that”
FINAL RATING: 4/5