Stormzy Heavy Is the Head Atlantic Record
Stormzy transcended grime a long time ago. Author Zadie Smith pens essays about him in the New Yorker, ill-informed politicians like Michael Gove quote his lyrics on Twitter in disastrous attempts to appear relevant, and pockets of the British media report on his movements with more scrutiny than the prime minister.
In the wake of his triumphant Glastonbury headline set, the south London rapper has become a national treasure. At this point he feels more like a symbol of British perseverance and ingenuity than solely a musician. From platforming Wicked Skengman videos on YouTube to launching his Penguin book imprint #Merky Books, this is the kind of success story that’s impossible not to feel drawn in by.
Legendary artists in this vein are expected to create their own blueprint, but there’s a sense on his second studio album, Heavy Is the Head, Stormzy is just following the winning formula of others. Syrupy ballads like Crown and Don’t Forget to Breathe could have been ghostwritten by Ed Sheeran, who shows up on the underwhelming Own It. Stormzy’s falsetto feels as if it was designed to be the acoustic ‘lighters in the air’ moment at a live show. At one point, he fully leans into the cliché: “You’re the only one who sweeps me off my feet/ Makes my soul complete”.
The most obvious influence on the album is Drake. The way Stormzy consistently shifts between delicate crooning and braggadocio reminding us of his greatness is clearly inspired by the Canadian artist. Songs like Rachael’s Little Brother, which sounds like a diluted version of Nice for What’s soulful trap, fall flat, with a few awkward turns of phrase (“I keep dragons with me like Peter Jones”).
Stormzy is at his best when he finds his footing on Big Michael and Audacity. The latter features ascendant drill rapper Headie One and is immediately thrilling, with bars like “They calling me the Virgin Mike/ How the hell I bust so fast?” a reminder of how piercing Stormzy can be as a lyricist when there’s some fire in his belly or he’s walking on familiar ground.
The way Stormzy persistently grapples with holding the crown is also a reminder of his innate ability to draw you into his imperfect world. The suspicion that drives Do Better (“Having visions of my friends with RIP sweaters”) is hard to stop thinking about, and a bold reminder that being at the top isn’t just about trophies, but paranoia too.
These haunting moments of introspection are quickly followed by tinny bops like Pop Boy and Bronze, where he raps: “I’m the king of grime by default”. This bar speaks to the problem with Heavy Is the Head: an album which secures Stormzy’s spot on the throne, without offering any music that’s truly game-changing.
It’s a solid album, but the fact it comes from a king means you’d be right to expect a lot more. Stormzy is still an invaluable symbol in British society, but you’re left with the feeling that he’s a symbol that’s been momentarily bent out of shape, the music just one facet of a vast empire.