For the last few years it’s safe to say there has been a Stormzy brewing. From successive EPs and catchy freestyles, which garnered top 10 chart positions and awards, to clever marketing campaigns, a huge cloud of potential has formed and followed Big Mike’s ascension. And now, the most highly anticipated album to come from Grime has finally hit – Gang Signs & Prayer.
Stormzy makes an imposing entrance, using the first three tracks to truly make a statement. ‘First Thing First’ has Stormzy addressing issues he has with the behaviour of certain people in the music industry, establishments such as DSTRKT and personal battles with depression over a trap-influenced instrumental. He then translates his aggression onto ‘Cold’, which is in the mould of the quintessential Grime sound, while the third track of an explosive opening trio includes the first featured guests of the album, J Hus and Ghetts. ‘Bad Boys’ is derived from the legendary incident involving Bashy and Ghetts, where the famous “ask Carlos” line was first birthed, something that J Hus references in his well delivered hook. Both Stormzy and Ghetts spit verses worthy of the episode that the song revolves around, making for one of the album’s highlights.
These opening three tracks can clearly be interpreted as parts of the album that represent gang signs, as per the project’s title. This is then contrasted with ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1’, where we hear Stormzy singing for the first time. Though the rich sentiment of the song is clear in helping to establish the religious element of the project, the strength of Stormzy’s vocals are questionable, yet his singing reappears on ‘Cigarettes & Cush [Ft. Kehlani]’ and ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2 [Ft. MNEK]’. Stormzy has stated that he wants to be seen as an all round artist and not just a rapper, but weak vocal performances are not going to aid that aspiration. It’s difficult not to think he should have left the singing to those more capable as his strained attempts take the gloss off of some good ideas. ‘Velvet’ is perhaps the only example on which he stays within the confines of his vocal ability, which consequently results in one of the album’s better moments.
Stormzy displays his skill as an emcee via various tracks throughout and shows an aptitude for storytelling on ‘100 Bags’, ‘Don’t Cry For Me [Ft. Raleigh Ritchie]’ and ‘Lay Me Bare’, further developing his lyrical style from his collection of celebrated freestyles. This lyrical depth is more of an indicator of his growth as an artist than his transition into singing. Unfortunately, a potentially special collaboration with Wretch 32 underwhelms as Wretch’s guest spot only offers a short, sung contribution, whereas his unique wordplay could have added another truly memorable moment on the album.
The title alone instantly suggests an oxymoronic element to Gang Signs & Prayer, alluding to many of Stormzy’s hardships running parallel to his religious beliefs. Sonically, this creates juxtaposition between the aggressive Grime instrumentation and the softer Gospel-inspired elements scattered throughout, producing a fascinating musical excursion.
Whether Stormzy’s vocal delivery when singing is strong enough to actually gain valuable recognition is uncertain, but his numerous rap performances (also seen on the likes of ‘Mr Skeng’ and ‘Return Of The Rucksack’) definitely add weight to the argument that he’s correctly considered as the leader of the latest generation of Grime.