On first listen...
Labeled "the chosen one" by many of today's young grime fans, Stormzy is the J Cole to Skepta's Drake. The people's champ, his fans include Adele, David Beckham, Ed Sheeran and Bradley Walsh. Having won the ears of the masses in 2015, after a social-media campaign, he nearly caused upset when his unlikely Christmas number one entry – street anthem Shut Up – came in at number nine behind the likes of Justin Bieber, One Direction and eventual winners the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir.
A year and some change later, he's the talk of the town. Loved for his ferocious flow, witty wordplay and brutal honesty – don't let the alluring childlike smile fool you, there is some serious bite behind that charm. Stepping out from Skepta's genre-defining shadow he's ready to take the baton. With his much anticipated debut album Gang Signs & Prayer (GSAP) finally here, the time has come to see if it lives up to the hype and is ready to help carry grime onto the next leg of its journey to worldwide acceptance.
One thing Stormzy has always been very good at is creating an anthem. First there was Know Me From, then Shut Up and with his new album comes the assertive Big For Your Boots. A razor-sharp banger that cuts through the BS, Stormzy isn't here to play games. Feeling like a throwback to grime's earliest inception, the double-time drum loop and sped up vocal sample, coupled with his wise-cracking shots at those that need to be taken down a peg or two, wouldn't sound out of place on Wiley's Treddin' on Thin Ice.
Laying everything out from the word go – in an Eminem 8 Mile type of way – on First Things First, Stormzy strips himself down. Admitting to the dirt he's done and allowing his enemies no room to use anything against him – he even admits to previously suffering from depression – over an enigmatic backdrop that feels like something Boi-1da could have produced. It all somehow feels like a destroy and rebuild exercise for the 23-year-old. Addressing the racially discriminative codes of practice some London clubs have been outed for adopting – DSTRKT being the main culprit – Stormzy spits: "Fuck giving money to people that don't like us / There's riots in the city, just tell me where I sign up / The rave goes silly every time I pick the mic up."
With plenty of gritty moments peppered throughout, which give way for Stormzy to get his lyrical guns off – most notably Bad Boys with Ghetts and J Hus as well as the murderous Return of the Rucksack – it's actually the album's more refined and less insistent moments that stand out from the pack.
Hearing a more focused and thankful Stormzy on 100 Bags, the dedication to his mother is one of those rare moments – where listeners are permitted past the rapper's Teflon exterior. Admitting to wrongdoings and celebrating his mother for staying by his side through his self-discovery missteps, he joins the ranks of 2Pac, Kanye West, and more recently Big Sean, as creator of a worthy tribute to mothers.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Stormzy closes out GSAP the same way he starts it... by being brutally honest. On Lay Me Bare he makes it perfectly clear that not all family members are welcome to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Recounting the time he bumped into his MIA father – whose first words after not seeing his son for years were: "I need a car" – he doesn't hold anything back, even wishing shame on his father when he hears the record. With a relatable vigour and eerie yet free feeling instrumental, there's an argument to be had that this might be the album's finest moment.
Not perfect by any means, GSAP is not without its lapses. While it may have worked on 100 Bags, Stormzy's desire to explore his singing capabilities doesn't always come up trumps. On Velvet his attempt at recreating what sounds like a Drake-esque moment – think Look What You've Done or Shot For Me – falls a little flat. Sandwiched in-between two of the album's toughest cuts (Big For Your Boots and Mr Skeng) it does nothing but unnecessarily break up a good thing – a two-step is turned into a lighters-in-the-air moment. Crossing the pond to recruit singer Kehlani, on Cigarettes & Cush his voice doesn't sound too bad next to the caressing tones of the Bay Area vocalist – who on this particular record sounds very similar to Lily Allen – but it's still not amazing by a long stretch.
Music is all about balance and that is why it's understandable Stormzy decided to experiment with his vocals. However, with it being his debut, there's a risk he might alienate his longtime followers who were probably expecting an all out grime-fest. Experimentation without criticism usually comes after proving yourself to the masses. Luckily for Stormzy, there's no real dent in his armour at the hands of the aforementioned questionable moments because the rest of the album is pretty flawless.
It's no coincidence that the UK was hit with a storm the day before the release of GSAP, it was readying the country for the cultural explosion that was about to take place. While it might not be the classic that everyone is already claiming it to be, it is a bright light that continues the work that Dizzee Rascal's Boy in Da Corner, Wiley's Treddin' on Thin Ice, Kano's Home Sweet Home and Made in the Manor, and Skepta's Konnichiwa has put in to solidify grime as a genre to be taken seriously. If this unique and potent album overseen by the genius that is Fraser T Smith doesn't attract listeners from the outside then nothing will.
Will Lavin is a hip-hop music and lifestyle Specialist of 10 years. A 2015 IMC Award winner, he's written for publications such as VIBE, XXL, Complex and Blues & Soul. He's worked with artists such as Chaka Khan, Timbaland, will.i.am. and Chris Brown. He also runs illwill.co.uk.