Stormzy Gang Signs & Prayer #Merky Records
“Who’s gonna stop me? You, him?” asks Stormzy on Big For Your Boots, the lead single from Gang Signs & Prayer. The real question is, can anybody? For all the debate about his day-one grime credentials and perceived YouTube freestyle come-up, Stormzy has assumed his position at the top of the grime pyramid as if it was his all along — and his highly-anticipated debut album is the official confirmation of this.
GSAP is an album that is as aggressive as it is tender; defined as much by its bravado as its personal reflection, with gospel-influenced pop balladry making up around a third of the album.
Stormzy’s made no secret of his ambition to be the biggest and best artist in the UK, not just the best grime MC. But he also uses GSAP to take shots at those who still doubt his pedigree in claiming the latter. For someone criticised within the scene for his unusual trajectory in grime terms — no radio sets, no Eskimo Dance, no ‘grind’ — there are references to the genre’s roots across the tracklist. The Crazy Titch skit is particularly deep, especially given Titch’s legendary standing despite over a decade passing since he was incarcerated for murder, while there’s also a reference to a classic Dizzee Rascal freestyle: ‘I roll deep on these/ put these MCs on deep freeze’, is echoed on Return Of The Rucksack. Although a likeable, positive character away from the booth, these criticisms still clearly irk Stormzy, bringing out the darker, more aggressive side to his music that caused such a stir within the scene to begin with.
There’s also a host of carefully chosen features and producer credits, striking the right balance between underground grit and mainstream gloss — a balance that has eluded so many other grime albums of this ilk. Raleigh Ritchie sings a radio-friendly chorus on Don’t Cry For Me, and J Hus slices through the greaze with a quotable hook on Bad Boys, which features a show-stealing verse from OG grime spitter, Ghetts. There’s also emotional vocals from singer MNEK on Blinded By Your Grace, Pt.2, the second of two devotional, gospel tracks and Wretch 32 on the mellow, reflective 21 Gun Salute. Although executively produced by lauded engineer Fraser T. Smith, Stormzy also enlists veteran grime producer Sir Spyro to produce two of the album’s biggest, hardest-hitting tracks; Big For Your Boots and Return Of The Rucksack.
Some might argue GSAP lacks out-and-out bangers, and there’s grime purists who might have felt a little cynical about Stormzy’s unapologetic pursuit of the pop charts. But Stormzy makes music to get things off his chest – whether good or bad — and this album listens like the work of an artist who is totally comfortable in his own skin. Nothing feels contrived or forced — the grittier tracks bang as they should and the insular, reflective moments are offered up with genuine emotional weight. Take it or leave it, the release of GSAP is a monumental moment for UK music. Now let’s see where Stormzy, and grime, go from here.