The Best Albums of 2017 (So Far):
Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
I was going to select Sleaford Mods’ English Tapas for the final inclusion…
PHOTO CREDIT: Stefan Heinrichs
on this list but felt, as both were pretty strong, Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayers just muscled it. English Tapas, in a sense, is a very British album – it looks at national issues and the same parade of dodgy characters one usually finds on a Sleaford album. It is a remarkable record and definitely in this year’s top-ten, thus far. I plumped for Stormy because, not only is it his debut, but it seems to predict a lot of the uncertainty that was to unfold in the country. He speaks about where he is and came from and, in many ways, has managed to push Grime forward. There is the traditional boasting and confidence; songs that look out at the country and what is happening around us. Whilst it does not acutely lambast and chide the government and their mishandling issues and the people – one feels Stormzy is preparing another record that reflects the tense times we live in.
In looking at Gang Signs & Prayer; it is important looking back and the lead-up to the album. Stormzy has been a player on the Grime scene for a few years now but never really gained the recognition and attention he deserved. Perhaps that was a natural reality – nobody catapults right off the block – but, given the strength of his debut album; the seeds were planted right from the off. One listens to cuts from his debut E.P., Dreamers Disease, and hears those sparks and flashes of inspirations. That E.P. was an independent release and gained a modest following. Even then, one felt a special and bright talent was starting to take shape. Maybe the songs (on the E.P.) were not as confident and nuanced as what we find on Gang Signs & Prayer – plenty for people to get excited about, regardless.
Know Me From came out in March 2015 and was another step forward from the London Grime newcomer. Unveiling the final part of his WickedSkengMan freestyle series – I think Judi Dench put out a similar project at the time! – WickedSkengMan 4 onto iTunes – that was joined by a studio version of Stormzy’s Shut Up freestyle. It was a first top-forty for the young artist and an important accomplishment. Not only that but the track’s video racked up millions of views and pushed Stormzy’s music to new audiences. Because of this increased attention and approval; Stormzy helped pushed the song up to eight in the singles chart with a passionate Christmas campaign. There was a gap following that success but it was not wasted. By February this year, a series of billboard campaigns appeared around London that displayed lyrical quotes and the #GSAP 24.02 hashtag. The first taste I, like most, had of the album was the single – and my favourite slice from the album – Big for Your Boots.
With Fraser T. Smith on production duties (with Sir Spyro); it got to number eight in the charts – the joint highest-placed single from Stormzy – it would reach number six eventually and, therefore, became the biggest hit so far. What I love about the album is the fact it harks back to the ‘golden’ age of Grime. I am a big follower of Dizzee Rascal and his immense debut, Boy in da Corner. Maybe Dizzee’s songs were directed more at the estates and characters he encountered as a youth – Dizzee was a teenager when the album was recorded – whereas Stormzy’s debut had a slightly different agenda. What thrilled me about Gang Signs & Prayer is the sheer confidence and mix of sounds displayed throughout. It is not a simple and one-dimensional effort – like one might hear from his peers – but an explorative and cross-pollinating wonder that sounded like it was being performed by someone decades into their career. That lack of nerves and complete conviction meant it connected with critics – one of the most celebrated and loved albums of the year (until that point).
There is pensiveness in the record, as some noted, that balances the bold and, sometimes bolshie, nature of the music. Never combative, reckless or impudent: it is, instead, a wonderfully realised and mature release from an artist taking a huge swing at the competition. Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 1 has a few writers in the mix but it is Stormzy’s personality and voice that comes through. It is, oddly, a sort of Stevie Wonder-like piano-led song that, as you say it, sounds a bit ridiculous. The fact it is one of the highlights shows what a force Stormzy is. It is an emotional and reflective piece that acts as a pleasing contrast to the braggadocio and swagger one discovers in other moments. Sure, there are a few weaker offerings on Gang Signs & Prayer and some flabbier inclusions – mainly towards the end of the album – but they are compensated by so many triumphs.
One of the biggest criticisms of Grime and Hip-Hop is how repetitive, limited and constrained it can be. In a sixteen tracks debut album; Stormzy would not have survived the critical assault were he to further denigrate the genre by producing a run-of-the-mill record. Instead, knowing the knock British Grime gets, there are a variety of instruments, ideas and stories packed into the songs. There is, yes, bravado and proclamation but, as the songs start to melt away, one finds a sensitive and intelligent young man trying to push Grime beyond its roots – ensuring it is fresh, inspiring and evolving. I feel Gang Signs & Prayer acts as a vital scripture for contemporaries to study. U.S. Rap and Hip-Hop is a lot finer and more reputable than the British alternative – this can change if more follow the example of Stormzy. The fact Stormzy refutes the maxim that a Grime album needs to contain endless bangers is a brave decision. He, on his debut album, keeps the shout-outs and smack-downs to a minimum – preferring to looks inwards and address something deeper and more personal.
Not only is there is some fantastic performances from Stormzy himself but some of the guests he hooks with. Kehlani and Wrecth 32 join MNEK and Raleigh Ritchie add something different to Stormzy’s deep and darker tones. Cigarettes & Cush, featuring Kehlani, is one of the standouts and a song that, once heard, rattles around the head – two very different performers sounding perfectly suited on the song. If one is blown away by the collaborations and guest spots: one cannot ignore and underplay the emotive and tender times on Gang Signs & Prayer. 100 Bags is Stormzy sharing his open-letter to his mother – offering regret for his past indiscretions and foolishness; thanking her for raising him alone and standing by him. There is a song on the album, at the very end, when Stormzy calls MC Crazy Titch – calling from prison as he is serving a life term for murder. That stick-to-basics approach is everything rebelled against on the album.
Accusatory in the way it calls-out Grime artists unwilling to push the genre forward: here, we have a demonstrative evolution and desire to take Grime in new directions. I guess there are basic elements and rather bare-naked offerings on the album – a freestyling over a 2004 instrumental is as sparse as they come. What I mean is the insipid beats and cliché set of lyrics – one would experience on any other Grime album – are dispensed with and replaced by something fuller, more interesting and original. Inspired by artists like Skepta, Lauryn Hill and Frank Ocean; there is a wonderful blend of U.S. Soul/Hip-Hop and British oldskool Grime. All of this unified and comes to fruition in a marvellous debut album that must rank as one of the best albums of the year. Certainly, there will be no British Grime albums that match the scale, scope and quality of Stormzy’s debut – unless Dizzee’s approaching album rekindles his early genius – and, I think, Gang Signs & Prayer becomes more relevant and compelling as time passes. What Stormzy does next is up to him but, whatever he does, he has a huge task…
ECLIPSING a remarkable debut salvo.
Hip-Hop; Grime; R&B
#Merky, Warner, ADA
Stormzy, Fraser T. Smith; 169, E.Y Beats; Mura Masa, Sir Spyro; SOS, Sunny Kale; Swifta Beater, Wizzy Wow; XTC
Cold; Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 1; 100 Bags; Shut Up
Big for Your Boots