Album review: Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer


Since winning the MOBO Award for the Best Grime Act in both 2014 and 2015, Stormzy has continued to receive a number of other accolades, as well as being nominated for a Brit Award this year…

The huge success of 2014’s Not That Deep and 2015’s Know Me From brought him from the underground into the mainstream, gaining him many younger and older fans leading to a busy worldwide  touring schedule. During this time he has been unsurprisingly quiet in terms of releases, instead featuring more often on other artists work. One of his finest moments came in the form of a hood video in a London park, Shut Up sampled a Ruff Squad instrumental from the early 00’s and featured some of Stormzy’s hardest bars to date as well as some astronomical Youtube stats. This year he finally makes his mark with the debut album Gang Signs & Prayer, a healthy selection of 16 mostly unheard tracks.

From the first track he is tackling some much tougher subject matter than usual, bravely speaking of his depression as well declaring himself a fan of fellow Londoner Adele. Not your average grime lyrics but this is also not an ordinary album, on the opener First Things First the slow trap beat and emotional melodies capture the mood. There are more pleasant surprises in the form of R&B smoothness on Velvet (Interlude), where a female vocalist and Stormzy show off silky vocals and a much softer delivery. Cigarettes & Kush featuring Kehlani follows suit but ends up sounding forced, the same could be said for the gospel-rock-pop awkwardness of the MNEK collaboration Blinded By Your Grace. Long time fans will know that he has always been about much more than just grime, as his early back catalogue features dancehall and hip-hop flavours. It is refreshing to hear new things as he progresses but there are certainly a few flops, club friendly beats seem to suit much better.

Luckily there are plenty of ice-cold sub-heavy rhythms to keep the pace up, when Stormzy aka big Mike is on form he gives even MC’s like Ghetts or Kano a run for their money. When you see him perform live, as many did when BBK brought him to Red Bull’s Culture Clash, you see the raw passion he posses. Big For Your Boots is the first highlight for the grime heads, the undeniable sounds of Sir Spyro underpinning some wicked punch lines. Anything he touches turns to gold, providing beats for last years anthems Toppa Top and Mud with Capo Lee. This could easily be13 his best work yet, staying true to his pristinely minimal arrangements he has managed to improve it further with some garage-esque vocal cuts and muted orchestral stabs. Return Of The Rucksack is another example of a great match where rugged strings and a twisted vocal hook are driven by energetic drums. Bad Boy is a fully gangster affair, the over the top cliché American rap instrumental is the perfect catalyst for the albums most exciting features. Ghetts destroys the others of course but young gun J-Hus lays down the best hook of the release.

As grime legend Crazy Titch says in his interlude, ‘we started from the roots’ and as he declares Stormzy as the future of the genre you begin to realise how far these guys have come. Many independent UK acts are now able to release music without major labels, as this release proved successfully by having each track in the top 50 at one stage. On 100 Bags he even manages to pull off the obligatory album track dedicated to your mother ‘I bought mumsy a pad’, and as we saw in the news last week he has definitely bought himself a nice place too. Even with a few disasters along the way, at 16 tracks long it is a thoroughly well executed album. By not following too many current trends it should hopefully age well, avoiding the temptation of a big EDM hit or a pop-star feature could mean that in a decade this will be regarded as am important piece of grime history; alongside Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner or Skepta – Konnichiwa.