Stormzy’s career checklist has been revised and scaled up numerous times in recent years. With two UK Number One albums to his name (and a third surely on the way), the south Londoner has also ushered in a new generation of Glastonbury headliners, announced plans for ‘This Is What We Mean Day’ – a specially curated event that will form part of All Points East Festival 2023 – and launched a multitude of important and inclusive initiatives (most recently #Merky FC, a partnership with Adidas that is “committed to enhancing and protecting diverse representation in the football industry”). For Stormzy, such lofty life goals must seem more like open goals at the moment.
Given his high-achieving reputation, it’s not surprising to learn that preparations for ‘This Is What I Mean’, the follow-up to December 2019’s ‘Heavy Is The Head’, were meticulously planned. Staging a “Stormzy music camp” on Osea Island in Essex, the 29-year-old assembled an ensemble of musicians and collaborators to help create his third studio album, a work that he previously promised would be “an intimate love letter to music”. Elaborating further, Stormzy added in a pre-release day statement (which doffed a cap to Tyler, the Creator’s similar welcome message for ‘IGOR’): “I pray that [the album] moves you and captures your imagination, and I pray that someone, somewhere feels it.”
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Setting such objectives for ‘This Is What I Mean’ foreshadows the album’s largely mellow and mature tone, which sees a reflective, suave and more melodic than ever Stormzy pour his heart out on record. “I’m a sensitive soul,” he practically whispers on the harmony-rich ‘Please’. “Please, could you pause the applause?” Given that the LP’s two lead singles, ‘Firebabe’ and ‘Hide & Seek’, rank highly among its creator’s smoothest slow jams yet, it’s clear that we’re a long way from the Stormzy of 2019 (“this ain’t the same man who said his head was heavy,” he offers as a parting shot on the fiery title track, which conversely serves as the album’s stand-out rap moment), let alone the ‘Shut Up’ Stormzy many people were introduced to in the park back in 2015.
‘This Is What I Mean’ sees Stormzy letting his listeners in like never before. On ‘Bad Blood’, he analyses the breakdown of his recent high-profile relationship (“news and the blogs and the sites never bother us”) before poetically declaring that his love will prevail: “It should be me by your side ’cause I know your heart.” The uplifting gospel tones of ‘Holy Spirit’ is another soaring highlight, in which a singing Stormzy underlines the role his faith continues to play: “You gave me peace and purpose / Although I don’t deserve it, although I’m far from perfect.”
The compelling ‘I Got My Smile back’ is Stormzy’s most candid moment on record yet, in which he acknowledges his past struggles with his mental health. “Me and loneliness kick it from time to time,” he states over soothing choral voices and determined beats. “She knows the deal, that I ain’t hers and she ain’t mine / Me and joy got tighter, that was overdue.” The track’s second verse is a vitally important expression of vulnerability for a major artist to impart on his listeners, some of whom may ultimately draw inner strength from Stormzy’s own lived experience.
Among the record’s many contributors are 0207 Def Jam signee Debbie, who steals the show on ‘Firebabe’ and the album’s blissful closer ‘Give It To The Water’, Sampha (who is given his very own track on the imploring ‘Sampha’s Plea’) and a host of Afropop stars including Tems, Amaarae and Ayra Starr. Stormzy leans on and gives his guests ample space to breathe in order for them to apply their individual influence on the record, demonstrating the rapper’s solid belief in the collective power of music.
There is a small sense of disappointment that we don’t get to hear Stormzy let loose on the mic more often, but then this record was never going to be a recreation of ‘Heavy Is The Head’ or ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’s proclivity for immediate grime hits. The hard-hitting lyricism is still present, though: the punchy ‘My Presidents Are Black’ references Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DNA’ after claiming that, by listening to this album, we are “now tuned into my magnum opus”. A snippet of conversation ends the track, with Stormzy’s trailblazing presence in UK music being highlighted: “The road that you go on now, you’re paving the lane. It’s this road for all these people to walk.” With ‘This Is What I Mean’, Stormzy continues to lead the way: another goal ticked off on that checklist, then.
- Release date: November 25, 2022
- Record label: 0207 Def Jam / Hashtag Merky Music