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Saturday, 31 March 2018

Stormzy’s Stunning Debut Album – A Review of Gang Signs and Prayer

Originally published February 2017

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Michael Omari a.k.a Stormzy a.k.a The Problem a.k.a Wicked Skengman, dropped his much-anticipated debut studio album “Gang Signs and Prayer” this past Friday to the excitement of grime fans everywhere. After a surprise performance with Ed Sheeran at the Brit Awards earlier in the week, there was a great buzz around Stormzy and this new album does not disappoint. “Gang Signs and Prayer” not only excellently captures the South London youth experience, but also takes the listener on a compelling journey as the album tackles issues of love, race, religion and urban culture at large.

The song 100 Bags neatly encapsulates the titular theme of urban swagger and spirituality, and was one of the first to begin trending on Twitter, Friday morning. It honestly and succinctly outlines the emotional struggle for success felt by most children of immigrants, single parents and/or those raised in poverty. There is a recognition of the sacrifices the parents made and the desire these children now feel to give them a better life. As Stormzy states in the song:

“All the times that you worked on the late shift, just to see you come up short on your pay slip. Always in and out of beef with the bailiffs. Now I’m on The Playlist. Yeah, where I come from is bad. Same old shit, just mums no dads, and we all know growing up in London’s mad…South of the Thames, where I come from is mad…Tough luck, just mums, no dads and we all know growing up in London’s mad...I bought mumzy a pad! Ghanaian Queen, let ‘em know that you bad. Be right here when you need me, I need you to know that your son has got your back. Like Mum I owe you everything, can you believe that? Everything, imma repeat that.”

Given the harsh socioeconomic reality of many communities in London it is unsurprising that this song resonated with so many fans online, so quickly after the album’s release.

100 Bags opens with an early morning prayer Stormzy’s mother leaves on his phone for his daily protection and guidance. An experience to which many children of African and Caribbean descent can relate. The ubiquity of religion in African and Caribbean immigrant households is something that is well known, but rarely discussed in contemporary Grime music. As such, the element of faith seen in “Gang Signs and Prayer” not only grounds the album in reality, but is also a breath of fresh air that demonstrates Stormzy’s versatility as an artist. This versatility is apparent in the fluid transition between the piety depicted in Blinded by Your Grace part 1. and the brashness heard subsequently in Big for Your Boots.

{Insert Blinded by Your Grace Part 1: 

Big for Your Boots: 

The fact that Blinded by Your Grace Part. 2 which appears later in the album is a stronger, louder sound than Part 1 was no doubt intentional. Part 1 demonstrates a quiet vulnerability synonymous with the necessity for divine guidance. Part 2 however, illustrates Stormzy’s firm and fervent commitment to faith. It is safe to say that Blinded by Your Grace part 2 could play on any contemporary gospel station right now, which expertly delineates the extent of Stormzy’s skill and range.

Blinded by Your Grace Part 2:

On Don’t Cry for Me (ft. Raleigh Ritchie), Stormzy directly address the impact of urban life and gang violence on his own life and the pain of losing a friend. Underlying the song is a desperate hope for a brighter future for himself and those he loves. This discussion is immediately followed by a phone call with incarcerated grime MC, Crazy Titch, serving as interlude. Despite Crazy Titch’s circumstances, the conversation is upbeat as the Grime veteran supports Stormzy; advising him to ignore the haters and highlights the younger MC’s positive influence on the genre:

“I don’t wanna hear man say ‘I’m too gangsta to listen to Stormzy.’ Shut up, that’s a lie. You ain’t…real talk it just means you’re a hater…don’t pay them man there no mind brother! You see, anyone from my era of grime needs to recognize that if you cannot fathom that this guy is about to take it from a second-rate genre to a first-rate genre, then you need to look at yourself and be ashamed. Seriously.”

 Despite the religious elements of Blinded by Your Grace and the gentler nature of Don’t Cry for Me; this is still a vicious grime album. The edge and grit of which, is on full display in bangers like First Things First, Cold, Mr. Skeng and Return of the Rucksack. The entire project comes to powerful and poignant conclusion with Lay Me Bare, a commanding and candid outline of Stormzy’s struggle with depression and the estranged relationship with his father.

Every song on “Gang Signs and Prayer” brings something truly innovative to the table. A formidable and exciting addition to the Grime scene. When you talk about this album, to paraphrase Stormzy, you better hashtag excellence.

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