The second track of his debut album finds Stormzy reflecting on his rise to fame. “I just went to the park with my friends, and I charted,” he says of the video for Shut Up, which went from YouTube sensation to gold-selling Top 10 hit, transforming him from a hotly tipped grime MC into a mainstream star. It was obviously a bit more complicated than that, but the 23-year-old still seems like something of an overnight sensation compared to many of the grime stars he’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as. There’s no lengthy back catalogue of releases suggesting years of underground grafting: he emerged at just the right moment, as grime’s commercial resurgence got underway. It seemed that no sooner had he released his debut single than he was on Later … with Jools Holland and picking up Mobo awards.
You occasionally sense a certain prickly defensiveness about this state of affairs on Gang Signs and Prayer. At one juncture, Crazy Titch, an MC currently serving a life sentence for murder, is called upon to admonish “anyone from my era of grime” who “thinks I’m too gangsta to listen to Stormzy”, as if the latter rapper feels he might need that kind of endorsement to protect him from accusations of hype. In fact, Gang Signs and Prayer suggests a more straightforward reason for the speed of his rise: he’s just really talented.
He has made his name with tracks filled with withering put-downs, and there are plenty of those on offer here. “Mum, if you’re listening, close your ears,” he suggests during the particularly scourging Mr Skeng. But the striking thing about Signs and Prayer isn’t so much Stormzy’s way with a well-timed and dexterous diss so much as the the quality of his lyrics when he turns his attention to other topics. Plenty of rappers have written about feeling displaced from their backgrounds by money and success, but Don’t Cry for Me, a powerful exploration of his complex relationship with the bit of south London where he grew up, is devoid of the usual cliches. He writes affectingly about depression on the closing Lay Me Bare, a purgative howl of a track that also tackles, in pretty painful detail, his estrangement from his father. He writes about the constant simmering rage brought about by poverty, and about his Christian faith.
The latter isn’t a topic grime MCs traditionally address, at least not in this detail, but then, most grime MCs don’t wear socks and sandals either, a look Stormzy seems perfectly happy to style out in public. And nor do they come up with stuff as peculiar as Cigarettes and Kush, a lush, romantic ballad positing the idea that the secret to a long and happy relationship is for both parties to remain permanently stupefied by marijuana: “At the end of the day I belong to you, I’ll still pass the bong to you,” croons guest vocalist Kehlani. If that doesn’t seem like a theory that might stand up to rigorous scrutiny, the track still feels like the product of an appealingly unusual sense of humour.
The music follows a similarly bold trajectory. The straightforward grime tacks are extremely strong. Even if Stormzy and his producers (including Fraser T Smith, a one-time Rick Wakeman sideman best known for working with pop titans including Adele and Sam Smith) don’t come up with anything quite as haunting as Functions on the Low, the 2004 instrumental by Ruff Sqwad associate XTC that forms the backdrop for Shut Up, then Big for Your Boots and Cold are still impressively sparse and taut, prickling with icy electronics.
More startling, however, is the confidence with which other tracks shift into unexpected musical territory. On paper, a rapper like Stormzy recording a lo-fi, electric piano-led, Stevie Wonderesque gospel track called Blinded By Your Grace Part 1 sounds like a textbook case of an artist overstretching himself; in reality, it’s fantastic, and oddly moving. Likewise, the gorgeous confection of sped-up vocal samples and drowsily pulsing synthesiser that makes up Velvet – romantic slow jams not really being the forte of the scene from which Stormzy hails. “Man thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing,” he chuckles at the end of the latter, having done just that for the final minute and a half of the track. In fact, his singing voice is a pretty fragile thing – understated and occasionally a bit pitchy – but it works: there’s something really appealing about its vulnerability, and the contrast it provides to the edge-of-panic flow that powers First Things First or Shut Up.
Grime’s commercial renaissance has largely been fueled by a back-to-basics approach: the bullish we-were-right-all-along manifesto set out on Skepta’s 2014 single That’s Not Me. There’s certainly some of that to Stormzy’s rise to success: it doesn’t get much more back-to-basics than freestyling over a 2004 instrumental in a south London park. But there’s a lot more to Gang Signs and Prayer than that. It’s not a perfect debut – it’s slightly too long for one thing, and there are a couple of points where it sags – but it sounds like an album teeming with original, daring ideas. More importantly, it sounds like the work of an artist with the confidence and the talent to pull those ideas off.