As most are probably already aware, 24th February finally saw the release of Stormzy’s highly anticipated debut album Gang Signs & Prayer. Not only did the record receive 69,000 combined sales in its first week, but it deservedly made history by being the first grime album to reach number one in the official UK music charts.
Owing credit where credit is due, this isn’t even the first time he’s sent the UK charts into frenzy. In 2015, he paid homage to his freestyling roots by releasing Wicked SkengMan 4, the final episode to his freestyle series, Wicked SkengMan.
As part of the single’s EP, he also released another freestyle, Shut Up, which is currently the MC’s highest-charting single, having entered the top 10 single chart a week before Christmas.
For the first time in UK history, Stormzy (AKA The Problem AKA Big Mike AKA Stiff Chocolate) had sent two freestyles into the UK Top 20 chart. So really, it was no surprise that Gang Signs & Prayer has garnered as much attention and respect as it has.
Stormzy has done nothing but deliver every time he’s presented something to both the mainstream and underground music scenes.
As much as I could write a whole article celebrating Stormzy’s achievements and influence on the music industry, it would probably be best to talk about the album for which he is currently one of the biggest names right now.
His sixteen-track debut did not shy away from being illustrative of a journey, full of contrast, working perfectly in sync with the juxtaposing title. Stormzy so easily could have played it safe, sticking to the charged-up riddims that made him who he is today, but instead takes the adventurous and daring route, fluctuating between hyped anthems like Big For Your Boots and Mr Skeng and gospel-tinged confessionals throughout.
You wouldn’t really think to expect a full-on gospel in a grime debut album and the from the outset, would probably perceive this as a “try-hard” move. However, Stormzy remains true to the ‘prayer’ element of the title (and successfully so) with moving devotionals like Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1.
The track is almost entirely sung by the MC and seeps vulnerability and sincerity – both qualities which many artists fail to achieve. In contrast, the opening track of the record First Things First, which masterfully opens up with sounds from a storm as the introduction, presents an unapologetic rawness in which he lays the slate clean and addresses everything he needs to before the album can officially begin.
In an interview with Fader, Stormzy spoke of how the intent of this song was to be “a punch in the face” and he did just that, attending to his battles with depression and outrage with the racism within the London nightclub industry (in particular DSTRKT, which is notorious for its discriminatory door-policy).
Cold is a vibrant, up-tempo track but similarly to First Things First and many other songs on the album, does not fear the inclusion of a deeper underlying message. In the case of this song, he puts emphasis on the empowerment of black people, ‘all my young black kings rise up, this is our year’ – highlighting once again why he’s one of the defining voices of our generation.
A personal favourite from the record is Lay Me Bare, a five-minute long emotional gush which sees Stormzy in face of his depression and the isolation he felt, infused with the rage that came with the absence of his father.
The lyrics are raw and hard-hitting but the soft, almost melancholic piano playing in the backdrop which is accompanied by a mechanical beat provides for the perfect conclusion.
The emotional tributes in this album don’t end there with an ode to his mother in 100 Bags and the ‘smoochy’ Velvet, a feel-good, harmonic R&B ballad being aimed towards a love interest. Cigarettes and Cush, featuring Kehlani and hidden vocals by Lily Allen, is another R&B slow jam on the album flaunting a free-spirited, lazy synth sound.
Gang Signs & Prayer is a spectacular debut, with Stormzy’s intelligent song-writing abilities shining through, aided by his booming voice and powerful instrumentals provided by the likes of Fraser T Smith and Mura Masa.
It isn’t perfect, most albums aren’t, but I can’t help but commend Stormzy on how brilliantly he executed this project. His earnest lyrics and sentimentality accompanied by skeletal beats and masterful uses of synths and electric pianos track-in-track-out emphasise just how multi-dimensional he is.
Through these complexities embedded within the record, he defies the stereotype of grime’s ‘gang-culture’ with deep-cutting songs, boasting that he isn’t simply a “one-dimensional character”.