The south London grime don delivers a knockout debut that’s brash and pensive in equal measure
On ‘Cold’, a trap-influenced track on Stormzy’s debut album, he boasts: “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted”. He’s talking about ‘WickedSkengMan Part 4’, the release that made history in 2015, becoming the first freestyle to break the UK charts. The 23-year-old south London grime don (real name Michael Omari) has reason aplenty for showing off, yet much of ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ catches him in a more reflective, appreciative mood.
Not that there’s a banger shortage here. ‘Bad Boys’ is brooding road rap that sees grime veteran Ghetts and relative newcomer J Hus unite to call out “f**kboys” whose badman credentials are in doubt. On ‘Return Of The Rucksack’, the main man rides staccato beats to dismiss fame-hungry newcomers who want to clash with him: “Bro, I’m above that”. The frenetic ‘Big For Your Boots’, recently released as a single, makes the cut too, as does the blasé but bruising ‘Shut Up’, which beat The X Factor in the UK charts at Christmas 2015.
Yet the record is notable for its pensive moments that reveal a side to Stormzy we saw on last year’s ‘Birthday Girl’, a smooth track that was dedicated to his girlfriend, the radio host Maya Jama. ‘Blinded By Your Grace’ is an organ-led ballad that trades in unashamed schmaltz: “Through the darkness you came / And I’ll be alright with you by my side”. ‘Cigarettes and Cush’, featuring Californian vocalist Kehlani, is influenced by ’90s R&B and pays homage to a lover who has their priorities straight: “You’ve got those cigarettes and cush / No, you never let me down”.
Stormzy, a prolific tweeter, has built a reputation as something of a comedian and concludes one lush track with a self-effacing skit on which easy-listening radio host Jenny Francis drawls: “That was Stormzy with the smoochy ‘Velvet’.” This is followed by the marching, uncompromising grime of ‘Mr Skeng’, one of the most confrontational tracks on ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’, underlining the fact that the rapper does what he wants, in his own way. Amen to that.