With the increased critical and commercial success of some of grime’s biggest names, like Skepta and Wiley, spreading beyond British borders, there has been no better time than now for a rising UK rapper to drop their debut studio effort and, indeed, Michael Omari, known by his MC moniker of Stormzy, seems to have hit the sweet spot when it comes to timing. With Wiley, the godfather of grime, having just released his sign-off record, grime is as big a talking point in the music world as it was when Skepta’s latest album, Konnichiwa, took home Album of the Year at the BRIT Awards. Despite Gang Signs & Prayer being Stormzy’s first full album, the London-based MC’s name has been one of the biggest in grime since the gradual success of his YouTube freestyle, Shut Up, which became so popular that it was released officially and climbed to number eight on the UK Singles Chart. The continued success of this single could have seen Stormzy remain relevant for a long time and, indeed, when the rapper went into hiatus after releasing a non-album song, Scary, he arguably became an even greater topic of discussion. Now, in February 2017, following almost a year’s worth of complete silence from Omari, with the artist not even using social media during his hiatus, Stormzy has come back kicking with his debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer. Other than Shut Up, the only other song to have been previously heard on this record is its one and only single, Big for Your Boots, which was dropped in promotion of Gang Signs & Prayer at the beginning of the month. What’s also striking about this debut is that Stormzy deviates from his grime sensibilities on some cuts and pursues an R&B sound, employing the help of just as many guest singers as guest rappers. It seems that the title of the album was chosen as to reflect the two different sides to this record; the chilling grime cuts on which Stormzy spits heavy bars with his usual snide attitude, and the laid-back, soulful R&B tunes that often deal with Omari’s faith in Christianity. Indeed, Gang Signs & Prayer is more than just an hour’s worth of back-to-back grime bangers, with the artist taking some bold risks that make for an incredibly memorable debut.
First Things First is as apt of an opener as it is audacious, with Stormzy marking his return to the British hip hop limelight by shooting down those who used the artist’s hiatus to spread clickbait rumours about Omari and his supposed complete disappearance from the music world altogether. Despite being somewhat of an introductory track to Gang Signs & Prayer, with the rapper claiming that this cut was intended to simply get some housekeeping out of the way before getting on with the rest of the record, Stormzy comes through with some of his most biting bars and vicious performances on the entire album. Omari has professed his desire for this song to be “a punch in the face” to kick off his debut and I can’t think of a better way to describe this cut, which is even more impressive given the sparse production. Icy synth lines accompany Stormzy as he spits some of his coldest bars on the whole record with one of his nastiest deliveries, which only adds more emotional weight to the lines regarding the rapper’s struggles with depression, gang life and sociopolitical instability in his area. The bad blood displayed by Stormzy on First Things First is a recurring theme across many of his bangers, with this album’s only single, Big for Your Boots, coming to mind as a prime example. Atop a pretty old-school-sounding grime beat, complete with the trademark pitched-up female vocals that are often associated with the genre, Omari tears down the addressee of the song, which can be summed up by the witty and fierce refrain, “You’re getting way too big for your boots / You’re never too big for the boot / I’ve got the big size twelves on my feet / You face ain’t big for my boot”. Stormzy’s delivery during the chorus is as nasty as ever, but it comes across as almost deliberately comical and condescending with the silly way in which he pronounces the word ‘boot’ as he repeats it over and over. Ultimately, on the harder cuts from Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy not only reaches the same level of attitude on Shut Up that made him so appealing, but he exceeds it on the best grime tracks here. What’s more, there’s a part of me that feels like the MC still hasn’t shown us his delivery at its most vicious, so I’m sure one day, Stormzy will drop a track with a degree of bitterness that we’re yet to experience.
As previously mentioned, this record’s second face is one of an R&B persuasion, unlike anything Stormzy has put out thus far, with the rapper trying his hand at singing, with help from the likes of Kehlani, MNEK and Raleigh Ritchie. For the most part, these songs are relatively impressive first attempts at this style for the MC, although, whilst Stormzy’s individual style of delivery when it comes to rapping distinguishes him from other grime artists considerably, these sung tracks show him clearly pulling from prominent artists in the contemporary R&B world. The two tracks wherein Omari’s soulful singing goes over best are, in my opinion, the two parts of Blinded By Your Grace. Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1, as the first cut on the record to convey this R&B vibe, acts as an introduction to this different direction for part of the record. As such, it’s very laid-back and is used more like an interlude, with some smooth, soulful keys accompanying Omari’s baritone singing that carries an air similar to that of Rag’n’Bone Man and other similar artists. Given the lyrical topic of the artist’s Christian faith, his vocal performance elevates the track to the level of a gospel song, which becomes even more apparent on Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2. Warm organ chords support Stormzy’s deep vocals as he repeats the refrain from the first part, and as MNEK’s backing vocals swoop in, the pair perform with the breadth of a choir. Whilst none of Stromzy’s attempts at this style of music fall short of what he envisaged, cuts like Cigarettes & Cush and 21 Gun Salute clearly display a direct influence from other popular artists, with Chance The Rapper coming to mind as a likely influence on a handful of these tracks, especially given some of the Christian themes. As a result, these songs don’t tend to maintain the individuality and personality that can be found in Stormzy’s approach to rap music, but, nevertheless, for Omari to take such a bold risk — and on his debut album, no less — is highly admirable and goes over rather well, for the most part.
Gang Signs & Prayer could have turned out in numerous ways, with a lot of people likely expecting Stormzy to try and emulate the elements of Shut Up that made him rise to fame in the first place. Of course, there are plenty of killer grime cuts on this record that would sate the desires of the rapper’s fans without question, but Omari’s willingness to work outside of his comfort zone and explore other musical stylings is commendable, and makes for an album with a deeper aesthetic than if the artist were to have chosen to simply put out an hour’s worth of back-to-back bangers. If Stormzy wishes to pursue the R&B side to this record further in the future, he highlights a need to develop a more unique and interesting approach, as the novelty of a grime MC taking a shot at some soulful sung tunes wouldn’t be enough to make songs of that ilk stand out on a follow-up project. Nonetheless, if Omari sets his mind to honing his R&B approach, he could certainly develop a special sound, as he has most definitely demonstrated his singing abilities on Gang Signs & Prayer. Ultimately, there’s a lot to be admired about this album and Stormzy as an artist, and his debut is an impressive mission statement for what could surely be a fruitful and extraordinary career for the rapper.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10