Let me be honest for a moment: I know next to nothing about grime music. I know it was born in the UK—and I did listen to acts such as The Streets (remember them?) and Dizzee Rascal (remember him?) in the early 2000s—but that’s really about it.
What I do know, though, is that I saw the video for Stormzy’s “Shut Up” several months ago and I’ve been a bit obsessed with the song ever since. Who is this guy? I thought. Where did he come from? So I did some research! It turns out that Stormzy is a young grime emcee from London who has been slowly building up a name for himself over the last few years. He’s been viewed as one of the genre’s brightest stars for a while now, and “Shut Up” was a huge success for him all over the world.
Now that Stormzy’s debut full-length, Gang Signs & Prayer, is finally out, I was excited to sit down this weekend and soak it all in. And I’m happy to report, friends, that this album is fantastic from start to finish. The production is energetic and full of life, Stormzy’s flow is consistently awe-inspiring and the album’s tracklist was pieced together wonderfully, moving from one great moment to another without ever letting up.
Each of first three songs on Gang Signs & Prayer—“First Things First,” “Cold” and “Bad Boys”— hits hard, pulling absolutely no punches. And then on the fourth track, Stormzy hits listeners with a beautiful ballad, “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 1.” I honestly wasn’t expecting a lot of gospel from Stormzy, but I guess the album title should have clued me in that the man isn’t afraid to get serious and sing about his faith. That’s exactly what he does here, backed by a single keyboard and some soft background vocals. It sounds as if it was recorded in one take with everyone just casually sitting around the studio, and that laid-back vibe helps the song sound honest and sincere. (We get “Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2,” a more elaborate take on the same basic song, later on on the record.)
Stormzy cleverly follows up that slower moment with Gang Signs & Prayer’s larger-than-life lead single, “Big For Your Boots.” Stormzy spits with a vengeance, showing off his rapid-fire delivery over a fast-paced, percussion-heavy beat from producers Fraser T Smith and Sir Spyro: Devil on my shoulder, I don’t lack/ Hit ’em with a crowbar, I don’t scrap/ Even when I’m sober, I’m so gassed/ Say you ride but there’s no car and no mash!
Another highlight from the record is “21 Gun Salute,” which is billed as an interlude even though it sounds like a fully formed song to me. Stormzy’s in gospel mode again here, dropping a long, personal verse backed by keyboards and a hook from rapper Wretch 32.
Yeah, okay, our father who are in Heaven, he raps. Know that I pray that I still stay repping/ Pray for my bros and the pagans souls who turn their nose every time I step in/ Know that I pray that my bro stops betting/ Man that roulette machine won’t let him/ And I can’t wait ’til I say ‘I do’ and the bros say ‘Brap’, gun shots at my wedding. Stormzy also gets personal on “100 Bags,” a track dedicated to Stormzy’s mother and everything she sacrificed over the years to make him happy. I’m always a sucker for emcees who praise their moms, whether it’s 2Pac, Jay-Z or Kanye West, and this “100 Bags” is no exception.
And then, of course, as the penultimate song on the album, we get “Shut Up.” Seriously, if you listen to nothing else today, just do me a favor and give “Shut Up” a few minutes of your time. Listen and tell me you don’t love this. It’s impossible. Impossible, I say!
One of the more exciting things about this record for me is my lack of knowledge about the grime in general. The guest stars on Gang Signs & Prayer, with the exception of the fabulous Kehlani, are all brand new to me, so it’s like discovering several new artists all at once. Ghetts and J Hus, who take turns spitting verses on “Bad Boys,” are just two examples—I know nothing about these guys, but they both absolutely nail their turns in the spotlight, making me want to learn more immediately.
That’s just one of the many reasons I’ll be listening to this music for a long time. It’s fresh, it’s exciting and it gets better and better the more you listen. I have a feeling I’ll be featuring Gang Signs & Prayer pretty high on my best-of list at the end of 2017. Highly recommended!
Stream the full thing here … while I do a lot more research into the UK’s grime scene …