Gang Signs and Prayers (2017) comes at a time when Grime is at it’s strongest. The aggressive, fast paced rap genre has seen exponential success over the past year or so after several Grime acts broke into the charts and won awards at the MOBOs. But Grime is a fairly well established genre. Sure, the definition is broad, but it exists: 140 BPM, lyrical wizardry, and almost always a bad boy attitude. Yet, what Stormzy has done is amazing, and incredibly bold: he has created such an unorthodox album for his debut. It is an album that, from the cover artwork to the song titles, overflows with attention to detail, with religious motifs, with love for friends and family, but with little compromise on Grime’s hard-hitting, omnipotent energy.
Before even listening to the album, the artwork powerfully combines a recognizable religious motif of the last supper, with the Grime motif of ski masks (think of JME’s “Man Don’t Care” lyrics: ‘I’ve got a black ski mask, but I don’t ski).’ Cue the central figure: bare-faced, engaged; Stormzy himself. Going bare-face is, again, a Grime motif (of fearlessness and willingness to accept responsibility), but is also something that the general public can understand of not holding anything back — of revealing himself completely. And, this is shown in the titles of the first and last tracks on the album: the prologue “First Things First” and the epilogue “Lay Me Bare” sandwiching the rest of the album in this confessional feeling.
In “First Things First,” Stormzy opens up about gang life, family life, and his struggle with depression, a topic that appears in an interview for Channel 4 in which he says ‘it’s easy to dismiss’ until it’s happening to you. The Grime scene, much like the Hip-Hop scene, places such an emphasis on machismo and fearlessness that for Stormzy to come out and say such things is extremely important for those who look up to him – and the scene in general. Particularly now, with seven tracks in the UK top 40 last week (although Ed Sheeran’s dominance has since shunted most of them out), Stormzy has the ideal platform with which he can address issues important to him.
Despite rising to prominence only in mid-2015, off the back of “Shut Up,” a video filmed with his mate in a park now featured on Gang Signs and Prayers, Stormzy has already done a lot in the way of social responsibility. In 2016, he criticized the Brit awards for not nominating a single black artist, and earlier this year, in promoting Gang Signs and Prayers he paid for a billboard near his old school in Croydon, emblazoned with the message ‘All my young black kings rise up man, this is our year’ ( a line from “Cold).”
Not only in content but also in style, the album differs from traditional Grime. There are elements of Gospel on tracks such as “Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1” and a degree of emotional vulnerability on this track and “100 Bags” that is rarely explored in the Grime scene. Of course, there have been exceptions of late – Skepta’s phone call with Chip at the end of “Corn on the Curb,” or Kano’s extremely emotional “Little Sis.”
I think Stormzy likely knows that he is technically not a great singer and, frankly, I think that he doesn’t care. He is doing this because he wants to and because it is important to him. To do this on a debut, pulling in features from the likes of Ghetts, J Hus, and MNEK, and to receive such critical acclaim is nothing short of exceptional. At only 23 years old, Stormzy is a talented and motivated man, prepared to push the limits of Grime, urban culture, and his own artistic capabilities.
Written by George Green