Humanity Hallows Issue 5 Out Now
Pick up your copy on campus or read online
By Jordan Carrol
With Gangs Signs & Prayer, Stormzy has released his most daring project imaginable, pitting his brand of bullish grime against an unpredictable foray into beautiful, brittle gospel music. It’s this chalk-and-cheese concoction which has helped cook up one of the best British debut albums of the decade, apparently crafted in just ten months. Stormzy completely bares his soul to the listener on a 16 track album which never overstays it’s welcome.
Despite the audacious venture into gospel soul, the record still stays loyal to the anarchist sloganeering that grime is renowned for, stemming from the genre’s clash origins when opponents were humiliated within a few quick fire syllables. On ‘Cold’, Stormzy pummels the establishment: “So tell Boris Johnson ‘suck your mum, we don’t care’/And tell them riot feds ‘oi, buss your gun? You won’t dare’.” The track then sermonises for unity in the Black community to combat their oppressors, “All my young black kings rise up, man, this is our year/And my young black queens right there, it’s been a long time coming, I swear.”
On opener ‘First Things First’, London club DTRKT is condemned for its racist door policy: “Fuck giving money to people that don’t like us”, whilst ‘Mr Skeng’ sees Stormzy shredding the major labels: “Two weeks in the Top 10, who called it/Christmas, I went to war with the corporates.” Faux gang culture is then critiqued on ‘Big For Your Boots’: “Never had a mac-10 or a trey pound/You were never bad then, you ain’t bad now”, and there is similar condemnation on ‘Bad Boys’: “They think they’re bad cause of Narcos/They’re some Netflix bad boys.”
It is on the track, ‘Bad Boys’, which references the Lord of the Mics clash culture of grime, that J Hus adds another killer hook to his repertoire when suggesting they should “Ask Carlos” about his hood credibility, a quote directly lifted from the clash of Ghetts vs Bashy pt 3. Stormzy has always referenced old school grime in his music, as he pays credence to the pioneers who have constructed Britain’s most important cultural movement of the 21st century.
Instrumentally speaking, the slew of grime bangers on this record also completely deliver, trumping all of the previous beats he has sprayed on so far. Swifta Beater’s ‘Cold’ comes through with the nocturnal frost of Wiley’s eski-beat sound, before the icy bells are defrosted by a percolating brass section. ‘Mr Skeng’ is equally as hard, blitzing through skank-inducing strings, bouncing ‘Boy in Da Corner’ bass and scuttling drum syncopation. However, it’s Sir Spyro who steals the show, with his ominous strings and the tuba’s bellowing one-two on ‘Return of The Rucksack’. Lead single ‘Big For Your Boots’ also optimises Spyro’s production, with its kinetic energy, booming brass and inclining staccato vocals in the haunting elegiac choir.
The tracks feel completely distant from the kind of garage-indebted, mid-fi grime bangers that Stormzy grew up with. There’s organic orchestration, crisp percussion and lush synth work throughout the album, carrying the patina of an executive producer who knows how to produce a sleek pop song.
Gang Signs & Prayer is produced by Fraser T Smith, who has a proven track record of working on UK hits, albeit inconsistently. Only Barack Obama has aged worse than the Smith-produced ‘Stryderman’ by Tinchy Stryder, and the less said about his writing credit on Craig David‘s ‘Hot Stuff’ the better. Yet when teamed up with Stormzy, an artist with the perfect balance of artistic integrity and pop accessibility, he showcases his excellent abilities to polish these gritty bangers with the right amount of shine, making them sound as rich as Phillip Green whispering his tax returns into your ear.
As aforementioned, however, it is Stormzy’s touching and extraordinary venture into gospel soul that elevates the album above and beyond the expectations of the most bullshitting speculator you know. ‘Blinded by your Grace’ is pure, celestial sublimity, as Stormzy charmingly quavers, “Through the darkness you came/And I’ll be alright”, over a tinny electric piano arrangement that tips its hat to Frank Ocean’s ‘Good Guy’. ’21 Gun Salute’ transcends this spirituality further, acting as a confession to God and his sacrifice to him, “No more food/Left it with Satan”, and “Prayer that I still stay repping”.
This soul spilling candidness does not solely appear on the records minimal and sincere gospel cuts. ‘Velvet’ features pitched up female vocals and romantically woozy chords, manifesting as Stormzy’s take on Tinie Tempah’s ‘Wifey Riddim’, as he affirms his faith and devotion in girlfriend Maya Jama. “The boys wanna tease my faith/You’re just another reason to pray”. Ironically, it is on the wistful hip-hop of ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, with which Stormzy truly pours his soul onto paper, as he envisages himself “On the steps with Christ, tryna tell my young G’s to relax and invest in life/ they invest in knives, man I was in my history class when my bredrin died.” It is a plainspoken expression of disenfranchisement and the institutionalisation of black, working-class British youth, which drowns Stormzy in survivors’ guilt at transcending this position through attaining rap infamy. He can only part with a sigh, full of wistfulness and despair: “I just pray we fly”.
Stormzy’s post-album press has been full of peer setting, naming himself on the same artistic plain as Chance The Rapper, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. Yet Stormzy needs not propound his abilities. Neither does he need to submit to redundant, cross-cultural comparisons, which only serve to dilute the culture of grime. When The Brit Awards encapsulated their irrelevancy, by categorising grime veteran Skepta as a breakthrough act, Stormzy can go one better and take grime to the cultural echelon it deserves.
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