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Stormzy’s Empowering Debut ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ Is a Grime Epic for the Ages

Stormzy’s Empowering Debut ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ Is a Grime Epic for the Ages

First things first, he's been putting in the work.

Published February 27th

When tracing the timeline, stacking receipts and evaluating his raw talent, it's undeniable that U.K. rapper Stormzy was destined to become an heir to the throne of grime, a genre of music emerging out of East London in the early aughts, influenced by various sounds and styles found in U.K. electronic music, Jamaican dancehall and traditional hip-hop alike. That time for Stormzy to step up has now officially arrived on his terms and his terms only.

Although the 23-year-old's earliest rhymes can be curiously traced back to when he was of a single-digit age, something happened following his 10th birthday that shook the culture of grime music forever and not just in his native England. With the release of Dizzee Rascal's album Boy in da Corner, a 15-track opus that received universal acclaim, the power behind the U.K.-bred genre finally garnered mainstream exposure overseas and elevated Dizzee's career to unprecedented heights as he went on to become the U.K.'s first internationally recognized emcee. Watching the heroes of his beloved homegrown genre rise to international acclaim for the first time was the definition of inspiration, something that Stormzy, born Michael Omari, allowed himself to be captivated by from the start, diving in headfirst and making sense of it later.

Grime music, much like any musically driven culture born out of the underground, has gone through phases of evolution over the years, all while staying true to the defining sounds found at its core. With the scene's veteran leaders, such as Skepta, Wiley and Kano, continuing to reign supreme, each releasing milestone albums in the past year, the time has come for the spotlight to shine on the next generation. Though a seemingly daunting torch, Stormzy has now extended a wise-but-eager hand to grasp hold of it. As signified by the Last Supper-inspired cover art of his highly anticipated debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy not only accepts his role as the new leader of the lively, studio-hungry pack, but he knew this day would come.

Stormzy has been consciously and carefully setting up the pieces for his arrival since putting out YouTube videos in 2011, allowing his "Wicked Skengman" freestyles to chart independently, along with his previous biggest single to date "Shut Up," which also appears on Gang Signs & Prayer. It isn't a coincidence that his debut album received a worthy co-sign from the likes of Adele. He's put in that work, turning the dial up for the past 18 months and perfecting every detail of his glorious come-up. Although Gang Signs & Prayer is technically his first album, it certainly doesn't feel that way. The towering 6-foot-5 rapper revealed himself in bits and pieces over the years and his self-awareness only strengthens his project, giving him plenty of room to surprise everyone and dive as deep as he sees fit.

While the biggest front-running single from the project, "Big for Your Boots," has an infectious big-room quality that demands it be played on repeat, it is not representative of the album as a whole. With the ferocious battle cry of a track doubling as the very tune his diehard grime-eyed fans wanted him to make along with "Cold," "Shut Up" and "Bad Boys," he utilizes the remaining minutes of the project to flex his creativity, expose pieces of his soul and epically remind everyone that he was the chosen one. The album includes a snippet of a phone call from legendary grime emcee Crazy Titch referring to him as “#TheProblem” and charmingly singing his praises for a full two minutes. In turn, the project's collection of sixteen tracks is beautifully balanced, creating sixteen sound arguments that Stormzy is a legend in the making and this is merely the first chapter.

The project's first tune, a fitting introduction produced by Mura Masa, is a brilliant way to kick things off, with Stormzy spitting, "Like, alright, first things first, I've been putting in the work / I'm a rebel with a cause (with a cause)." Throughout the track, he details an autobiographical retelling of his challenges, including canceling his tours to the delight of his haters, finding God and battling his inner demons, with the line, "You was fighting with your girl when I was fighting my depression.” He weaves in his hero Adele for the first time, admits he wasn't yet ready for the spotlight and goes on to divulge that before he could "shine bright" he had to take some time to get his mind right. This is exactly the type of tune that will universally win over audiences for the first time, laying the foundation and introducing the clear street-meets-spiritual theme, "Before we said our prayers, there was gang signs."

Stormzy's unapologetic perspective and personality remain a consistent and massive ingredient aiding in his musical successes, helping make Gang Signs & Prayer so accomplished. His trials become triumphs and he lays it all out in the music with wit and intense passion, with his rough-around-the-edges nature smoothed out by the fact that he not only can sing himself, but expertly knows when to enlist the likes of someone like Kehlani to add her magic into the mix. With their collaboration "Cigarettes & Cush," Stormzy reveals his romantic side, but doesn't sacrifice any of his realness along the way. His chemistry with Kehlani marks one of the album's strongest offerings, a song that organically has crossover appeal without trying too hard and is able to call Stormzy’s debut album its home without anyone finding the need to raise an eyebrow. That same creative risk-taking proves it'd be an ignorant mistake to write off the project as solely the work of a grime emcee, with tracks such as the two part gospel-leaning "Blinded by Your Grace," the "Dear Mum"-style anthem "100 Bags" and the flip of NAO's "Velvet," proving that his music deserves the same respect as both Frank Ocean and Skepta — and in Stormyz's own words, Adele too.

The album's inspirational nature is not without genuine intent, with Stormzy himself stating that his driving force behind creating this project over the course of the past 18 months was empowerment. During an interview with The Guardian, he shared passionately that he feels compelled to act as an example to inspire, saying, "So I need to talk to my young Black kings, because I’m one of you, we who are always last. And I say to them, ‘You are sick, you’re nang, you can do this. You’re better than anything anyone’s ever told you that you are. You’re just as powerful as me.'"

Considering the magnitude of the tracks found on Gang Signs & Prayer,  which effectively merges grime, gospel and R&B, the project is more appropriately labeled an ambitious victory than it is an introduction. With his debut album perfectly timed, existing as a way to maintain through the madness found around the world and on an individual scale, Stormzy has a fire deep in his belly and a vision to match, proving that he knows he's bigger than a movement previously said to be bigger than him. It’s safe to say a storm is coming to America once again, perhaps even the biggest since Dizzee Rascal shook things up the first time in 2003. Get ready for it.

Written by KC Orcutt

(Photo: #Merky Records)

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