Stormzy’s long-awaited debut finally dropped this year, after an unexpected hiatus last September – Gang Signs and Prayer – which is the topic of my review today. Initially without explanation, many shows were suddenly cancelled and he disappeared from social media. However, after this release, with much internal debate, he explained that he had been dealing with depression (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/stormzy-opens-battle-depression-it-was-realisation-how-fragile-we-are-1609441), as well as deciding to address the issue on the album itself. In particular, the last track, Lay me Bare, as its title suggests, presents a typically self-confident Stormzy in a distinctly vulnerable state:
One more time I’ll make it clear / This some shit I hate to share / Escape this life or pay the fare / Grab this gun and aim it there
As is often the case, there’s some indication that his meteoric rise in 2015 caused his struggles (“I know they see me climbing the charts, but plaques won’t help me find my heart). Certainly, the stresses of sudden success would weigh heavily on most people. Stormzy grew a solid following through a series of live freestyle recordings (primarily WickedSkengman, Parts 1 to 4), where you can see his crew increasing in number from one performance to the next. This culminated in the viral hit Shut Up, featuring Stormzy in a South London parking lot, with a call and response chorus behind him.
This release even spawned parody video How to be Stormzy, which also became that entertainer’s most popular farce (‘Fire in the Park!’ ‘Where?!’).
As with most albums, Gang Signs & Prayer begins with a strong, upbeat track: First Things First. Here we see Stormzy in his natural form, notifying us that he is dangerous and not afraid of his detractors. For whatever reason, it does seem to be commonplace for other rap and/or grime artists to attack one another, especially with what might be perceived as an overnight star such as Stormzy. Throughout this record (and also with previous EPs and singles), he responds to and often calls out those who deride his fame. It does get a bit tiresome. Be that as it may, I still have to give him credit for acknowledging the mental health issues he has faced. Despite the overall tone of this track, he explicitly refers to his abrupt exodus in the fall and the depression that led to it. As much as he normally tries to project a persona of strength, not caring what anyone might have to say about him, it does appear that he is not completely above it. Personally, I often suspect this of anyone who claims to be immune to the words of their peers. Kudos to Stormzy for owning up to it.
As we move along to the fourth track, we are brought without warning to a departure from the general milieu. In addition to “gang signs”, the album title also references “prayer”, and in Blinded by Your Grace, Part One, it arrives in full force. Lying somewhere between gospel and Barry White, Stormzy sensuously demonstrates that he is capable of more. From here on out, the album moves back and forth between the approach detailed in the above paragraph and sparser, more melodic songs which tend to either praise God or lament love lost. On the whole, these numbers don’t really work for me, unfortunately. There’s nothing too wrong with them, they’re just not what I’m looking for when I want to listen to Stormzy, and I frequently find myself skipping them. Still, it’s nice to see him branch out.
After Blinded by Your Grace, Part One comes the lead single off the record, Big for your Boots (assuming you don’t count the inclusion of Shut Up). It’s not hard to see why this track was chosen to promote the release; not only is it catchy, it does a fantastic job of representing an updated, evolving Stormzy. Still aggressive, arrogant and true to form, it nonetheless showcases a new feel. It is often difficult for an artist to avoid contradictory criticisms of not staying true to earlier work and yet, at the same time, also not just rehashing the same tired, old ideas. Big for your Boots finds that elusive middle ground.
All taken together, this album is enjoyable, if not stellar. Stormzy demonstrates without dispute that he is much more than one-dimensional, even if some of the other dimensions are a bit flat. I wouldn’t call this release disappointing, but I can’t help but feel that Shut Up is still the best track. It is fortunately augmented by other assaults like First Things First, Big for your Boots, Mr Skeng, and Return of the Rucksack. It’s worth listening to for those alone, and if you happen to enjoy slow, smooth, quiet pieces as well as grime, you may well find this to be among the top albums of the year. Either way, I’ll be paying attention to Stormzy and looking forward to whatever he comes up with next.