Digital editor Conrad Duncan reviews Stormzy’s ambitious debut album
Even before it went to no. 1, Stormzy must have known that Gang Signs & Prayer was likely to be grime’s first blockbuster record. On the back of high-profile endorsements from habitual chart-botherers like Adele and Ed Sheeran, back-to-back MOBO Awards in 2014 and 2015, and a top 10 hit with almost zero promotion, no matter what record Stormzy chose to put out, it would have been a hit. Yet, for a man who’s made a name for himself by looking like he’s barely breaking a sweat, Gang Signs & Prayer sounds like it was a long time in the making. Now, more so than anyone in this new generation of grime artists, Stormzy sounds like the one who’s most interested in making an artistic statement. Gang Signs & Prayer seeks to emulate the cinematic sweep of US hip-hop’s many classics, aiming to re-contextualise grime as a genre that deserves critical attention beyond its riotous singles.
For the most part it succeeds as well. Stormzy has already shown that he can deliver bangers with the genre’s best and tracks of that nature are evenly scattered throughout the album. ‘Big For Your Boots’ is the sort of crossover hit that many spend their entire career chasing, as infectious as it is ruthlessly no-nonsense, while ‘Mr Skeng’ and ‘Return Of The Rucksack’ settle scores with a cold-bloodedness that’ll still scare your parents. But a substantial chunk of this album isn’t interesting in demonstrating what we already know Stormzy can do. Instead, it broadens his palette, often drawing influence from gospel music and the oft-forgetten trend of R&G (rhythm & grime). Over a soulful instrumental, he plays a surprisingly romantic, and surprisingly tuneful, lover on ‘Velvet’. Later on, he gives a heart-warmingly charming tribute to his mother on ‘100 Bags’, skilfully switching between bravado and vulnerability.
One of the hardest criticisms for grime to dodge has been the accusation that its style is disappointingly one-note, invigorating in four minute portions but tiring over the course of an hour. In that sense, the most exciting thing about Gang Signs & Prayer is how easily it manages to sidestep that issue. Stormzy might not be the best lyricist in grime at the moment but his versatility on this album means that I’d bet on him to carry an hour-long project better than anyone else working today. He may be liable to drop the odd clunker every so often but what sets Stormzy apart is just how memorable and quotable his bars are. Throughout the album, he delivers memorable hooks and one-liners across almost every song; whether he’s professing his love for Adele or taking down MCs who try to use his fame for publicity.
However, that’s not to say that Gang Signs & Prayer is a complete success. While its adventurous is commendable and exciting, certain tracks do fail to play to Stormzy’s strengths. The Kehlani and Lily Allen collaboration ‘Cigarettes & Cush’ is a noticeable weak-link in the track-listing and while the gospel-inspired ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2’ is satisfying in the context of the album, it feels slightly overblown on its own. Followed immediately by ‘Return Of The Rucksack’, it’s the only point on the album where I’m reminded how much I prefer hearing Stormzy rap rather than sing. Yet, the fact that he can pull off these sorts of tracks is impressive enough to not weaken the record very much, even if I’d pass on the offer of a full album of them.
Gang Signs & Prayer sounds barely anything like the album I would have expected to hear from Stormzy back in 2014 and it’s all the better for it. He’s made a record that tries to appeal to a wide audience and succeeds without compromising his vision. It’s easy to forget that in the years when grime was lost in music’s wilderness, many of his peers and mentors were struggling to do just that. The religious message that features throughout many of its tracks could be seen as the influence of Chance the Rapper and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo seeping through but the attitude of Gang Signs & Prayer feels distinctly British. It feels indisputably like the album Stormzy wanted to make and while it might not be 2017’s finest grime album, it’s likely to be the one we remember the year by.