Album: Gang Signs & Prayer
Record Label: #Merky
Stormzy's debut LP extends both Grime's hardcore roots and contains a fresh-faced kind of humanity
The debut album from Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer, starts in the expected fashion. A dark, bubbling instrumental packed with menace and a hint of American trap propels him as his distinct, gun-shot flow brings to life Croydon industrial-estate fire. But then comes the assertion that "while you were fighting your girl, I was fighting my depression". It's subject matter that will rise again on the record's candid closer 'Lay Me Bare', but it's not completely uncharted territory for grime. Dizzee Rascal ended his seminal 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner with 'Do It!', a track that saw him confessing to suicidal urges that only guts were preventing him from obliging.
But Gang Signs & Prayer is hardly a complete throwback triviality or a re-hashing of old ideas. Just like the best grime it comes loaded with gritty identity, but perhaps in a relatively untested manner it confronts and develops a recognisably human face for a genre so imbued with the cold, hard reality faced by vast swathes of London's misrepresented youth.
There's plenty here that unashamedly harks back to grime's roots. 'Cold' is a searing banger that sees Stormzy wrap himself in the sort of gangsta mentality most honed by the likes of Giggs a decade previously. 'Bad Boys' is an eerie crawl through a desolate Lewisham warehouse at 3am, with a masterfully aggressive gambit from Ghetts and gems like "they think they're like Narcos, they're just some Netflix bad boys" adhering to the genre's perpetually dark but self-aware sense of humour.
There are layers to be found in these heavier moments too. 'Mr. Skeng' addresses split personalities and a self-directed culture change in raucous fashion; one of many references to the connection that Stormzy will always have with his formative, gang-centric years as explored with more subtlety in the heartfelt pathos of '21 Gun Salute' and 'Don't Cry For Me'.
The real moments of vulnerability that have lead many to herald Gang Signs & Prayer as a sea-change in personality come in the most lovelorn moments. 'Velvet/ Jenny Francis (Interlude)' is an overtly smooth, Drake-esque ode to the kind of love-life our protagonist can offer, while 'Cigarettes and Kush', featuring a beautiful gambit from Kehlani, uses narcotics as a metaphor for regret, misplaced entitlement and heart-broken longing. Unfortunately, despite its cosmic sonics 'Blinded By Your Grace pt. 2' lacks any real tact and proves beyond measure that there's almost no way to make the line "Let's hear it one time for the Lord" sound well-composed in rap verse.
Gang Signs... isn't a fully recognised standard. It's occasionally inconsistent in its impact but it bristles with humanity and, perhaps most tellingly, approach-ability. It's certainly more adept than Skepta's Konnichiwa was last year at carving a (mostly) captivating personality, and it's also the first grime record for years that's left plenty of room for foreseeable growth.
Key Tracks: 'Cold', 'First Things First', 'Cigarettes and Kush (ft. Kehlani)'
For Fans Of: Wiley, Kano