It’s no secret that Stormzy has found his way into the nation’s hearts. Not only is the Skengman immensely talented as an MC, he’s incredibly lovable as a personality. Through appearances on Love Island, candid interviews, and a warm online presence he’s become a bonafide national treasure.
2017 has been a very successful year for the South London MC. His much-anticipated debut album Gang Signs & Prayer dropped in February, and it was definitely worth the wait. While Stormzy’s origins are in grime, I refrain from calling GSAP a grime album, because it isn’t one. Throughout the album, Big Mike plays with UK rap, traditional hip hop, grime and a number of other styles. Stormzy isn’t the next Dizzee, but more importantly, he isn’t trying to be. Debut albums are a personal statement, a full-length introduction to the world, a shout into the vast expanse of the music industry demanding attention and Gang Signs & Prayer does the job expertly. Ever since ‘Shut Up’ dropped back in 2015, I knew Stormzy was no ordinary new school MC. His flow is reminiscent of Rakim’s effortless touch mixed with that raw South London edge. The album cleverly exhibits his range not only as a vocalist or MC but as a musician and songwriter.
In the space of 18 months, Stormzy has gone from ‘one to watch’ to ‘who to be like’ with Gang Signs and Prayer serving as the pinnacle of that success, debuting at number 1. Skengman has mastered his aesthetic and sound. The album artwork is a beautiful parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ which draws parallels between his strong Christian faith and the life of a young black man in Britain. It hints at the album’s content without revealing too much, serving its purpose as well as any other iconic album cover of the last year.
What is so powerful about the album is its relatability. The aptly titled ‘First Things First’ successfully sets the tone for the album. It’s hard yet vulnerable. Particularly with lyrics like “Fuck DSTRKT, fuck all these nightclubs and fuck giving money to people that don’t like us,” a reference to the scandal that ensued when a group of black women were denied entry to DSTRKT nightclub for being ‘too dark.’ These are things that most artists with Stormzy’s platform would be too afraid to say in fear of alienating certain crowds. These are the messages that young black children need to hear. They need to know now more than ever that their lives are valued and that they should never feel afraid to speak up in the face of racism. That’s exactly what Stormzy has done. Consistency is a quality Stormzy definitely has. This translates into his personal life as well, he recently called out the Metropolitan Police for incorrectly linking a large quantity of heroin found in Catford, South East London to the annual Notting Hill Carnival which is located in West London. Examples like this show that he really is unapologetic with who he is and where he is from – something integral to grime.
As a young black working-class girl from South East London it’s refreshing to see “someone like me” make it without having to compromise their art and who they are. Omari has created a body of work which could potentially do for today’s youth what Boy In Da Corner did for previous generations.
Further along in the album, he shows his range as a vocalist. Partnering with MNEK for the beautiful “Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2”. On part 1 he tenderly sings, this is not only a daring but a brave move. Not every rapper/MC has been successful as singing on their album. Without being cliche, he successfully manages to master the rapper/mama’s boy theme and dedicate a beautiful track to his mother, a woman who he credits most of his success to. It’s beautiful to witness the pair’s adorable relationship with one another.
In past years, the Mercury Prize has been known to shock people and do the unexpected and as such there remains one question hanging over Stormzy’s chances. Does Skepta’s victory last year potentially ruin Stormzy’s chances of winning the lucrative award? Can grime MCs make it two years running without accusations of bandwagoning being let fly? I don’t think that it should matter the genre of an album. And to be perfectly honest, if this were another genre of music, would it even be up for discussion? You reward the body of work – not the genre.
Gang Signs and Prayer is an entirely different kind of album to Konnichiwa. While deeply personal it’s also political, a statement to the world about what it means to grow up black in the UK, a subject all too often overlooked elsewhere in the music industry and media and for that reason, it deserves to win.
Words Eki Igbinoba