Stormzy review – shock and awe

Leeds First Direct Arena
A superstar-size stage show very nearly distracts from the colossal charisma of the south London rapper

Hip-hop has a soft spot for statistics. On Audacity, a track full of pique at the impertinence of his critics, the rapper Stormzy lists the capacity of the venues he played on the tour for his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, as evidence of his supremacy in UK grime. “5,000 capacity,” it goes, “spread that over the UK and then add it up and get back to me.”

Except this time around, that figure has doubled to “10,000 capacity” – an edit to the lyrics met by one of the many roars of recognition of the night from an adoring crowd. Delayed for two years, Stormzy’s tour for his second album, Heavy Is the Head, will now play to more than 175,000 people in the UK. With so many certainties upended in the past two years, it is heartening to see the south London artist remains an adored cultural figurehead, one whose lyrical power is matched by the breadth and depth of his offering.

Throughout the gig, Stormzy expresses his gratitude to his fans for hanging on to their tickets for two years and spends a very long time after the end of the gig slapping hands, posing for selfies, dispensing hugs and – maybe – signing a proffered blue trainer. Now, he is sitting on an album full of new material, waiting to be released later this year.

This is a hefty tour for a major album by a big star and, sometimes, the scale of the production is so amped as to get in the way. Seizure-pitch strobes and a blaze of pyrotechnics are unleashed even before the talent sets foot on the stage. An optic nerve-jangling affair follows, built once again by the team who art-directed Stormzy’s epic Glastonbury performance (and, significantly, Beyoncé’s landmark Coachella headline slot).

Hanging from the ceiling, there are moving scales of justice for the rapper and his DJ-cum-hype man, DJ Tiiny, to ride in. Overwrought images of steampunk hearts pulsating in a tangle of barbed wire give way to a hailstorm of sparks and, later, a giant crown-shaped lighting rig. If you film Stormzy’s all-out banger, Vossi Bop, on your phone, the blingy golden globe on the backdrop bearing his #Merky logo becomes three-dimensional and seems to hover above Stormzy’s head: a clever, 21st-century touch.

Often, though, these aesthetics feel disjointed, lacking a through-line. Shut Up, the 2015 track that established the South Norwood rapper as a cultural force, states emphatically that Stormzy is no one’s “back-up dancer”. Tonight, it feels at times like it takes all six-and-a-half feet of his authoritative congeniality for Stormzy to go mano a mano with his own stage set.

The front row at the Leeds Direct Arena.
The front row at the Leeds Direct Arena. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

When the barrage of visuals coalesces, however, the shock and awe is seductive. Also from the archives, First Things First finds all the overproduction paying off when salient bits of Stormzy’s lyrics are rendered in monumental stone on the video backdrop, or as glyphs: a pause button, the Twitter bird. Later, on Big for Your Boots, the visuals mock up reels of old-school photographic film stills, which capture the rapper from a number of live angles in real time: classy.

If a few tracks have changed – Cold, from his debut album, used to be a gloriously fraught, 8-bit bleep-fest; now it’s just vaguely portentous – some milestones pass with surprisingly little in the way of remarks.

Wiley Flow remains one of Stormzy’s most eloquent brags, paying homage, albeit in passing, to one of grime’s most problematic progenitors and author of antisemitic social media messages. But Stormzy spent a significant portion of 2020 locked in a battle of words with his former ally, trading below-the-belt insults in a barrage of diss tracks. Tonight, a video in which Stormzy, wearing heart-shaped shades, sips a mug of tea in very slow motion is a callback not just to his Englishness, or the occasions in his lyrics where he drinks tea while smoking a spliff, but also to the 2020 diss tracks Disappointed and Still Disappointed, not played tonight, in which a white mug of tea features prominently.

Watch the video for Wiley Flow by Stormzy.

At its heart, the Stormzy/Wiley dispute was mostly about the mainstream nature of Stormzy’s art, about whether a rapper who hobnobs with Ed Sheeran can still call himself a grime MC. Long passages of tonight’s set foreground Stormzy’s versatility – not just his singing, but his willingness to embrace God on Blinded by Your Grace, Pt 2 and examine his own faults on tracks such as Do Better, or offer encouragement to the next generation on the touching Superheroes. Success invariably means some dislocation from your roots, no matter who you are.

But there is no question of Stormzy’s verbal potency or aggression. The gig climaxes in a welter of hits, not least Clash, Stormzy’s double-header with his only real British rival, and good pal, fellow south London talent Dave. It’s a massive flex about the trappings of success – watches and cars – whose key lyric reinforces Stormzy’s exceptionality and the theme of loneliness that suffuses Heavy Is the Head: “we’ve overtaken all our peers.”

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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