Published Feb 24, 2017On his Mercury Prize-winning LP Konnichiwa last year, Skepta challenged listeners in asking, "Wanna hate on me? Wanna hate on Storm? / Fuck that, let the kings in."
The prominent grime MC was referencing his 23-year-old prodigy Stormzy, a South Londoner regarded as the next to take the grime throne in the wake of viral hits and an onstage appearance next to Kanye West at the 2015 BRIT Awards.
Stormzy's self-released debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, plays itself in the two directions its title mentions both lyrically and musically. Present first and foremost are aggressive numbers not unlike his earlier work, complete with his biting penmanship and agile flows. "Get out the booth, go home to your son / It's never too late to commit," he raps on standout "Big for Your Boots," while delivering a hearty "suck your mum" to British politician Boris Johnson on "Cold." Even the freestyled "Shut Up" manages to keep its "fire in the park" charm with a proper studio recording.
Gang Signs & Prayer breaks from what many would expect from Stormzy in drawing heavily from gospel music. The two-part "Blinded By Your Grace" sees him alone in reflection at first before taking everyone to church for its second portion, and while artists rejoicing in their faith forces some listeners to draw a line, none of it feels overbearing or preachy.
Elsewhere, R&B plays heavily in the sonics of the Nao-sampling "Velvet" and the Kehlani and Lily Allen-assisted "Cigarettes and Cush." In these softer moments, Stormzy sings rather than raps, but while he's not the strongest vocalist —he told The Fader, "I'm not a fucking singer, I'm not Frank Ocean" — an audible lack of studio magic to keep him technically sound only adds to the song's personal nature.
Both sides of Gang Signs & Prayer come to a head on pointed closer "Lay Me Bare," in which he writes about depression and his absentee father. Far from a weakness, that vulnerability brings welcome depth to Stormzy's explosive and emotional debut. (#Merky)