track-by-track: exploring stormzy's explosive debut 'gang signs & prayer'
“See Big Mike on the i-D site now the peng tengs wanna do the sex on me." We have a listen to i-D cover star Stormzy’s almighty debut.
When we chose Stormzy to be our cover star last year, we knew #greatness was on its way. We have believed in Big Mike since we heard the #Wickedskengman series back in 2013; Stormzy has always stood out. An MC. An actor. A spokesperson. A leader. A man of the people. A trailblazer and a groundbreaker. An iconoclast in the making. Stormzy also has a point of view and isn't afraid to share it. He can be bold and bolshie, a softie and a little shit. A sum of his many parts, the 23-year-old is able to bully his way boldly through a beat, while shouting out his mom, discussing domestic violence, and writing entire songs to his girlfriend. He can do darkly serious and he can do bitingly funny.
After such phenomenal success before he'd even released a record, he could have rushed the album out last year to capitalize on the endorsements, deals, huge hits, and rapidly expanding audience. But Stormz took his time on his debut. Shutting off all social media last year, Big Mike knuckled down to produce what he hoped, he told i-D in October, would be "a moment in time." Since its release on Friday, the reaction to Gang Signs & Prayer has been overwhelming: tweets from Adele, Skepta, and Ed Sheeran, appearances on Sunday Brunch, and pop-up performances at Boxpark. The album shot to number one on iTunes (remember Stormzy is still unsigned), where we hope it holds its place for the official album charts this week. If Gang Signs & Prayer goes to number one, it will be the first grime album to do so.
As Mike notes on the album, his success has been pretty phenomenal. 'I just went to the park with my friends and I charted', he laughs at one point. There is a little more to it than that. Like the album itself, Stormzy's career has been considered, planned to perfection, while he's managed to adapt effortlessly to whatever's thrown his way. Gang Signs & Prayer manages the near-impossible: a grime album with a pop polish that doesn't sound at all like its trying to be anything other than what it is. This is a record that will allow Stormzy to reach many ears, without distancing himself from his core audience.
This is partly thanks to exec-producer Fraser T. Smith's discerning ear, but mostly thanks to Stormzy's own vision that ensures the right balance is met. The album is splattered with grime connoisseurs, from Swifta Beata to Sir Spyro, but there's also gospel and a little R&B. Amongst the bravado and ego, there's remorse, despair, there's depression. This ability to be willing to share all sides of himself — sonically and lyrically — is Stormzy's strength and it's why the album works so brilliantly. The record is hard, sometimes ferociously so. But when tempered with the softer moments, things become all the more meaningful.
This is an important album from an important artist at an important time; the reverberations from this record will be felt for a long time to come. It's a moment in time, yes, but a moment that has the potential to last a lifetime.
1. "First Things First"
Starting as he clearly means to go on, Stormzy dives in deep, chasing his worst nightmares — haters, fakes, DSTRKT, LBC, on occasion himself — over Mura Masa's paranoid piano riff.
Standout lyric: "Drugs kill but my n*****s make a killing offa drugs/Rapping like I'm Jigga but I'm Puff/West End wanna show a n****a love/But if it weren't me you would never let my n****as in the club."
Stormz skips over Swifta's vigorous string-laden beat with ease, almost making a mockery out of his own flow. The energy of this album from the off is pitched perfectly. Stormzy's confidence is more than a match for the barrage of beats flung his way.
Standout lyric: "All my black kings rise up, man this is our year/All my young black queens right there/It's been a long time coming, I swear."
3. "Bad Boys" ft. Ghetts & J. Hus
Sounds like: Stormzy has done his homework.
"You're not bad, I'm bad, ask Carlos." If you know, you know. Hus handles the chorus as Ghetts and Mike talk about what really constitutes a bad boy.
Standout lyric: "Think they're bad cos they're narcos, they're some Netflix bad boys."
4. "Blinded by Your Grace Pt. 1"
Sounds like: Church!
Flexing his singing chops for a hot minute, Stormz balances the previous bolsh and bravado with some sweet gospel and quiet reflection.
Standout lyric: "I was lost yeah, but ever since you found me, I'm blinded by your grace."
5. "Big for Your Boots"
Sounds like: A stone-cold classic.
Spyro over-delivers the perfect R&G beat for Stormz. New-skool in mentality, but by dropping in the sped-up female sample, it's almost like we're back in 2004.
Standout lyric: "I was in the O2 singing my lungs out, rudeboy you're never too big for Adele."
6. "Velvet/Jenny Francis (Interlude)"
Stiff Chocolate gets his smooth on over this Nao-sampled track by Sonz of Sonix. The track closes out with Heart FM's legendary lady of soul Jenny Francis.
Standout lyric: "You try and look into my soul and see the real Mike/ I got a long term plan, I'm a long term man, I just got to get the deal right."
7. "Mr. Skeng"
Sounds like: Someone is angry.
It's skengmode season, as 'Gunshot Michael' takes on his attackers with both bold and blithe confidence.
Standout lyric: "My life's ok, how's yours?"
8. "Cigarettes & Cush" ft. Kehlani
Everyone knows Stormzy and Maya Jama are the absolute best couple ever. Dedicated to his missus, Stormz struggles to balance love and life, aided and abetted by Kehlani and an un-credited Lily Allen.
Standout lyric: "Now what have you done Stormz, what have you caused/ We weren't just bredrin's we were so much more/ Girl you was my hero, the beat to my heart/And them tears on your face, they just tear me apart."
9. "21 Gun Salute" ft. Wretch 32
Sounds like: Stormz had to make the song cry.
More an extended moment than a fully-fledged track, Mike drops just one verse in-between Wretch's paean as the pair raise the flag for the lost boys.
Standout lyric: "And I can't wait till I say 'I do', and the bro's say 'brap', gun shots at my wedding."
10. "Blinded by Your Grace Pt. 2" ft. MNEK
Punctuating the album with spiritual reflection, MNEK's jisty vocals join Mike on a straight up gospel banger.
Standout lyric: "Yeah I'm Abigail's yout, but I'm God's son."
11. "Return of the Rucksack"
Sounds Like: Shots have been fired.
Fast, furious, full of recrimination, Spyro once again provides a battlefield of beats for Stormz' straight shelling. Jheez!
Standout lyric: "See Big Mike on the i-D site now the peng tengs wanna do the sex on me."
12. "100 Bags"
Opening with a voicemail from Ms. Abigail Owuo, Stormz gets his Tupac on to dedicate a whole song to his mom.
Standout lyric: "Yeah I bought mumzy a pad/Yeah, like, Mumzy you're bad/Ghanaian queen, let them know that you're back, 'cause mommy ain't never seen a hundred bags/Now I'm like, Mom, buy a hundred bags."
13. "Don't Cry for Me" ft. Raleigh Ritchie
Aided and abetted by Game of Thrones' Ritchie's sublime vocals and orchestral composer/arranger Rosie Danvers, Stormz examines the social and environmental issues keeping his young queens and kings down.
Standout lyric: "Tryna tell my young g's to relax and invest in life/ They invest in knives/ Man, I was in History class when my bredrin died, so vexed that I cried/ But I come from a place where the mandem can't let shit slide/ So we rest in pride."
14. "Crazy Titch (Interlude)"
Trying in neatly from the previous track, Titch rings Stormz from prison to explain why he's the Neo to his Morpheus. Love that Stormzy is the first MC to properly reach out to Titch to give him a real and proper platform and hopefully the younger fans will delve into the culture's history to understand and appreciate the impact of those that came before.
Standout lyric: "This kid, no joke, you can hate him all you want, but he has to be seeing the games in 0s and 1s. It's not normal."
15. "Shut Up"
You already know what it is
Standout lyric: Take your pick.
16. "Lay Me Bare"
Stormzy lays it all out to finish things up. Most likely the most important track on the album, Stormzy pulls all of the themes together in one place, finally fully revealing his most vulnerable fears: depression, his absent dad, and doubt. It's a brave track to end on — fame and fortune might look exciting, but he's human like us all.Standout lyric: "Man-a get low sometimes, so low sometimes, airplane mode on my phone sometimes/sitting in my house with tears on my face, can't answer the door to my bros sometimes."
Text Hattie Collins