Written by Sahr Gbamoi
Stormzy returns with his debut studio album, Gang Signs and Prayer, once again posing the question “if Grime’s dead then how am I here?”
One cannot undermine the importance of Stormzy’s rise, being the first ‘child of Grime’ to have made it this big in the music scene. While the likes of Kano and Skepta still remain at the forefront, the 23 year-old has been able to rise to their level of notoriety, helping to push the entire genre forward. For these reasons, the release of this album can be seen as a notable point in British music history.
Generally, it does what it says on the tin. Gang Signs and Prayer is a well-balanced blend of the aggressive approach one has come to expect from Grime with a more relaxed yet still powerful Gospel sound. One wonders if Stormzy would have had second thoughts about featuring this level of religiosity without the existence of contemporary artists like Chance the Rapper helping to normalise presenting their audiences with a praise and worship session. With instances of similarity between the artists, like how the catchy Cigarettes and Cush seems to mash up well with Cocoa Butter Kisses (interestingly, a song Stormzy has referenced in previous work), a future collaboration appears somewhat inevitable. There’s even more to be found in the 58 minutes though, filled with sparks of creativity, such as Choice FM legend Jenny Francis’ feature at the end of Velvet, to make listening to the album in one sitting a pleasant experience.
The album can be seen as split in 3 sections: a 3-track EP at the beginning, followed by a 10-track LP, before ending with another 3-track EP. In Stormzy’s own words from Mr Skeng, “I do Rap then I do Grime then I do Rap then I sing then I go right back.” The Trap/Hip-Hop sound of the beginning helps to establish the proposition that he is more than just a Grime MC, while the main bulk in the middle is an exhibition of the artist’s range of musical capability, from the punchy Big For Your Boots to the mindful 21 Gun Salute, featuring Wretch 32. The final 3 tracks are a final shout out to the haters with a passionate monologue from Crazy Titch and a revamped version of Shut Up, before ending on a sombre note with Lay Me Bare.
The further I got into the album, the more I came to appreciate what Stormzy has become known for: being himself, from the serious moments to the jokes and the hype moments in between, all delivered with authenticity and conviction.
Although, for some reason, I am unable to comfortably place Gang Signs and Prayer in the pantheon of great Rap albums. Is it the result of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ approach, or is the album just too fresh to judge? From what I can gather, he has improved from his already solid flow on tracks such as WickedSkengman4 – and anyone who “thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing” has been proven somewhat wrong. With this in mind, if this work isn’t looked back on as a classic, any further improvements will mean that he will produce something of the highest calibre in the near future.
Either way, Gang Signs and Prayer helps to set the standard for not only the Grime scene, but for the entire contemporary Rap game, while contributing to the emergence of Gospel-infused Hip-Hop in the mainstream, seen by some as essential in a world seemingly increasing tension and conflict. For the amount of diversity it offers alone, it is poised to be one of the mandatory albums to listen to this year, but what makes it special is that anything featured is executed to a high standard. If Stormzy is able to maintain or surpass the level exhibited in this album, God’s wrath will remain the only power he fears.
Listen to Big For Your Boots below.