All the stops have been pulled out to reinforce the idea that Stormzy’s third album is a very big deal. The advance publicity began back in March, during the much-delayed arena tour in support of its predecessor, Heavy Is the Head. Fans were treated to a lengthy video featuring clips from This Is What I Mean’s recording sessions and encouraged to pre-order it from the merch stand, eight months early. Its release has been heralded by a primetime televised chat with Louis Theroux, and an online video in which Stormzy plays its contents to super-producer Rick Rubin, who responds almost entirely in superlatives. As of today, a pop-up venue called This Is What I Mean House is open in London, featuring “live conversations with Stormzy, performances, a merch shop and an ‘immersive listening experience’”. It’s a long way from his breakthrough hit, Shut Up, which was heralded by a video shot by a fan in a south London car park. But that’s 2m albums and 14 singles that have either gone platinum, gold or silver for you.
You wouldn’t describe the new album as unassuming. It is, after all, a record on which Stormzy compares himself to a cross between “Kanye West and Donny Hathaway”. And its best lyrics come on My Presidents Are Black, on which the self-styled “community provider, multiple diss track survivor” takes aim at music industry racism, has a colourful pop at the government (“tell Michael Gove we got something for your nose”) indulges in a vast amount of hugely entertaining flexing and announces that he won’t be reactivating his beef with fellow rapper Wylie on the grounds that he “can’t war with no broken man” – an act of caring and munificence that sounds remarkably like Stormzy reactivating his beef with Wiley.
Nevertheless, something about the promotional hullaballoo and the album’s grabbiest moments seem a little at odds with This Is What I Mean itself. It’s a noticeably more introverted and personal album than either of its predecessors. The grandstanding single Mel Made Me Do It, complete with its epic 11-minute, star-studded video, doesn’t appear here; its lower-key followups Hide and Seek and Firebabe are far more representative of its contents.
If Stormzy’s back catalogue offers a tonal comparison point, it’s Heavy Is the Head’s penultimate track Lessons, which was gentle, hazy and driven by an electric piano that vaguely recalled mid-70s Stevie Wonder. Lessons concerned itself with the collapse of the rapper’s relationship with TV presenter Maya Jama, and relationship woe is very much the prevalent theme here. If it’s about the same woman (and the tabloids are reporting that the pair recently reconciled) then he has done an awful lot of pining for her over the last three years. For anyone wanting a classic rock comparison, if Heavy Is the Head was Stormzy’s In Utero – a bleak assessment of fame’s effects on its author’s mental health – then This Is What I Mean might be his Blood on the Tracks: a disconsolate view of a failed love affair, albeit one that takes time out to mention that, heartbroken or not, Stormzy is still really good at having sex: “I’ll give you orgasms, more than you can fathom.”
As it turns out, Stormzy is as good at painting a picture of romantic woe as he is at wittily dissing his rivals and telling racists where to get off. “It’s probably best we found a fire from this perfect match to burn us to the ground,” he sings on opener Fire and Water, sounding as though he doesn’t think it was probably for the best at all. The track builds to an epic climax but slows as it does, as if it’s too exhausted to continue but is manfully dragging itself on regardless.
With its gentle keyboards, ghostly vocal samples and sparse beat, Hide and Seek sounds like a long, weary sigh. The fantastic Need You offers muted trumpets over Afrobeats-inspired rhythms and the doleful suggestion that, however irresistible he is to the ladies, it cuts little mustard with his ex. “You see my new girl? She’s fire baby,” he swaggers, before reality bites: “You don’t care much.”
By Bad Blood, the woman in question seems to be coming round a bit – “I could still slide around on a late creep,” he suggests, hopefully – although the music remains gauzy and understated: the melody here is carried by a fabulous confection of warped vocals. In fact, the album’s weakest moments come when Stormzy attempts something more portentous, befitting a big artist’s grand return: the mock-classical piano figure that opens the title track feels like it’s trying slightly too hard; the lyrics of Please are fascinating, taking in everything from Stormzy’s relationship with his absent father to the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle, but the church-choir backing vocals are a bit overcooked.
But for the most part, This Is What I Mean sticks to subtlety and nuance. Even the track that addresses Stormzy’s faith, Holy Spirit, is cut from a far more reserved cloth than his previous singalong hit Blinded By Your Grace. It’s a mood that fits perfectly, even if it isn’t what people might be expecting – a point that already seems to have struck Stormzy himself: “I’ve made peace with the idea that no one may like it,” he told Rubin. He’s clearly reached a level of celebrity where his audience are invested not just in the music but in Stormzy himself: if they’re willing to follow him down a more inward-looking path, This Is What I Mean is a good reward.