“Like, alright, first things first, I’ve been putting in the work,” Stormzy posits in the opening line of his debut album. It’s a statement that’s difficult to argue – he completely withdrew from public life last year, ostensibly to focus on making his record, but as it unfolds across the track, to put in work on himself too, as he dealt with depression and reforged a relationship with God.
‘First Things First’, though, is a three-and-a-half-minute laundry list of grievances to be addressed, cleared up and moved on from before heading into the manifesto of ‘Cold’ – “all my young black kings rise up, man this is our year / and my young black queens right there / it’s been a long time coming, I swear” – which feels like the beginning of the album proper. The first main chapter after the prologue.
Beyond those two tracks it’s a hectic run through bangers, hymns, banger-hymns and hymn-bangers, as Stormzy presents up the duality of this record as reflected in the title – Gang Signs & Prayer – peppering his boisterous, swaggering up-tempos with gospel and R&B, bouncing between referencing grime history and Bible verses.
The push and pull between the Gang Signs and the Prayer is served well by the playlist approach to the tracklisting, which never lets up for a second. You might be comfortably lulled by an easy groove only for the breakneck speed and agility of Stormzy’s MC-ing to hit on the next track and for him to break into his soft croon on the next after that.
Lead single ‘Big For Your Boots’ sets the tone for the crowd-stomping moments on Gang Signs, with its relentless pace and impish wit replicated on standout ‘Return Of The Rucksack’, which nods back to the old school and ‘Mr. Skeng’ which demands you put some respect on Stormzy’s name. Even 2015’s ‘Shut Up’ still bangs, though the two years of growth is apparent when lined up against the rest of the material in this collection.
The album makes its first dip into the devout a quarter of the way through, on ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt 1’ which sees a contemplative Stormzy take the mic before later passing it off to MNEK’s clear-cut, soaring vocals on ‘…Pt 2’ and truly taking it to church. While ‘…Pt 1’ can easily be interpreted as a universal love song, ‘…Pt 2’ is truly a faith anthem, spiritual enough that it could err on the side of galling for non-believers but buoyant enough to permeate on a secular level and balance it out.
The other overtly pious moment, ‘100 Bags’ starts with a prayer, as Stormzy’s mum leaves blessings for his day in his voicemail inbox. His subsequent confessional as he repents for teenage sins and pledges to fix up to make his mum proud is earnest without being schmaltzy.
Elsewhere there are other vulnerable moments. ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, a gorgeous orchestral ode to Croydon with Raleigh Ritchie on the chorus, has Stormzy reflecting on his roots, black malehood and what it takes to leave all you know behind, while ‘Lay Me Bare’ is an emotionally revealing look at Stormzy’s relationship with an absent father and his grief at the murder of a childhood friend.
For the lovers, ’Cigarettes & Cush’ is a lazy day vibes song featuring the only non-British artist on the record, the gravel-toned Kehlani, but an uncredited Lily Allen grounds the track back in London. Then there’s the Nao-sampling ‘Velvet’, a lush R&B cut which sees Stormzy joining the sweet-toned soul singer on the chorus.
There’s something for everyone on GSAP, and it keeps the listener alert and poised for the next surprise, but also allows for the modern day cherry picking and curating of personal playlists. Some of the best albums can be more of a grab bag of styles and influences that are contextually cohesive as opposed to sonically so and GSAP is a grime album, yes, but it’s more inherently a Stormzy album – an encapsulation of Stormzy at a moment in time. Now. Both Gang Signs and Prayer, and everything in between.
It does have a vibrant church streak and while it can be hard to divorce God from an album like, say, Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, which is steeped in reverence, Stormzy’s faith is present but not centred – a facet of his character that you accept along with the many other sides to himself he shows on this debut. Those more interested in his harder output can directly select out the bangers and circumvent the Christianity, but it’s impossible to get a full sense of Stormzy the man, the artist, the Adele fan without it.
[Images: Rex Features]