This album has been a long time coming for Stormzy, although the south-London MC has been on the grime scene and working hard for several years. His emergence can be traced back to his Brits appearance with Kanye West and other rising grime acts, including Skepta, in 2015. The highly anticipated debut Gang Signs & Prayer has inducted him more fully into the mainstream, truly delivering on the expectations – several tracks entered the UK top 40 and the album itself reached number one.
The album title puts together two quite opposite influences that have affected Stormzy’s life: gang culture and his faith. The cover art shows a deliberate alignment of the two, clearly recreating Da Vinci’s biblical painting, ‘The Last Supper’. The record immediately explains his relationship with those influences beginning with ‘First Things First’: ‘Before we said our prayers, there were gang signs’. God and religion, important for much of the black community, are paired with the difficulties of living in London on ‘100 Bags’. He cites his mother as a particular influence – the song is an ode to her, opening with a prayer for him to trust in God. We get an insight into her hardships: ‘All them times that you worked on a late shift / Just to see you come short on your pay slip’, and his own troubles: ‘I ain’t too proud / that you’re living on the road that your son got stabbed’, acknowledging something many people will relate to: ‘we all know growing up in London’s mad’.
‘Cold’ perhaps has the lyric summarising Stormzy’s hopes following this album: ‘All my young black kings rise up, man, this is our year / And my young black queens right there’.
The album also shows Stormzy’s foray into other genres, with the gospel-inspired ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2’. Aside from his renowned hard-and-fast rapping technique, he shows vulnerability through his attempts at singing, notably on ‘Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1’ and ‘Velvet’. He opens up about a low point in 2016, mentioning an issue rarely spoken of amongst young, black males: depression. He refers to this on the first track (‘I was fighting my / depression’), but delves deeper in ‘Lay Me Bare’: ‘Like man’a get low sometimes, so low sometimes’; he reveals his father’s abandonment saying he’s ‘still not over this’.
Elsewhere on the album, he endorses other breakthrough artists by including vocal contributions from Raleigh Ritchie (‘Don’t Cry for Me’), MNEK (Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2) and Kehlani (‘Cigarettes & Cush’), as well as Wretch 32 on ‘21 Gun Salute’.
He doesn’t shun mainstream music either and Adele gets a shout-out, twice. On the confident ‘Big For Your Boots’, he fiercely defends his tastes: ‘I was in the O2 singing my lungs out / Rudeboy, you’re never too big for Adele’. Confidence in his abilities also dominates ‘Return of the Rucksack’, a homage to his schoolboy self, as Stormzy says wearing a rucksack in high school was his ‘thing’. On the heavy ‘Bad Boys’, featuring J Hus and Ghetts, he calls out pretenders: ‘them protein shake in their breakfast bad boys’, while ‘Mr Skeng’ recalls his ‘WickedSkengMan’ series. These, of course, spawned ‘Shut Up’, a standout single that fans will surely be pleased to see on the album, as his first chart hit from 2015. ‘Cold’ perhaps has the lyric summarising Stormzy’s hopes following this album: ‘All my young black kings rise up, man, this is our year / And my young black queens right there’.
Although his ventures into singing aren’t always successful, it shows he isn’t afraid to try new things, and there are certainly more genres on here than grime. However, the fast-paced, MC-ing hits are, I think, the tracks you’ll want to play on repeat. Despite this year’s Brits coming before the album’s release, it seems like a major oversight that he lost out on winning Best British Breakthrough Artist – if he hadn’t broken through before, he undoubtedly has now.