ALBUM REVIEW: Gang Signs and Prayer by Stormzy

Written by Andrew Barr (@weeandreww)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or you’re on the BRIT awards voting panel, you’ll be aware that the UK grime scene is enjoying a real purple patch. This is clearly evidenced when artists like Frank Carter, the ex-Gallows frontman, declaring at the NME awards that “grime is the new punk rock”. Grime’s dominance was even clearer demonstrated by the fact that Skepta’s fourth record Konnichiwa charted at number 3 in the UK albums chart, as well as managing to capture the cultural zeitgeist in a way very little music has done lately with the singles That’s Not Me and the inescapable Shutdown.

One of the MC’s who has generated the greatest hype in this golden age of grime is Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, whose rise to fame almost perfectly personifies grime’s rapid growth. As he puts it on Cold – “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted” – referencing Shut Up, the penultimate track on Gang Signs and Prayer, which Stormzy debuted as a freestyle in a Croydon park which was uploaded to YouTube and shot to the top 10 of the UK Top 40 Chart. You may hear about this and assume Stormzy to be something of a one-hit wonder – but the remarkable Gang Signs and Prayer shows him to be anything but.

The biggest surprise while listening to this debut is how polished and well-produced it sounds, and how Stormzy manages to pull off this ultra-slick production and make a record which is unmistakeably a grime record. The lyrical content on tracks like Return of the Rucksack and the aforementioned Cold, which are essentially brag tracks, shows that Stormzy has not gone pop and abandoned the genre that he is famed within. The best grime track on this album is lead single Big For Your Boots, which opens with a sample guaranteed to send shivers down your spine. This precedes the chorus which crashes in with Stormzy reminding any challengers that he has size 12 feet and “your face ain’t big for my boot” with a lightning-quick flow in the verses guaranteed to send festival crowds into raptures.

Elsewhere on this album, however, Stormzy uses the polished nature of the production to venture into other genres and subsections of hip-hop. Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1 is an ode to God and his faith which doesn’t actually feature any rapping. Stormzy’s singing voice is average at best – but he partly masks this with subtle autotune. After all, one of the biggest moments of Stormzy’s fledgling career so far came at the 2015 BRIT Awards when he was on stage with Kanye West, and if a mediocre voice has never stopped Kanye singing then why should it stop Stormzy?

Velvet utilises trap beats (which appear on various tracks across the record) and sounds far sexier than any track ever written by a grime artist. The slower songs aren’t just on the tracklist to make up the numbers either, Stormzy uses them to convey other parts of his personality which he cannot explore on hard-hitting grime brag tracks. Cigarettes and Cush features one of the most bizarrely catchy pop-rap hooks in recent memory, where Stormzy is backed up by none other than Lily Allen in singing about his relationship with his girlfriend and the importance of weed in this relationship.

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The juxtaposition between hard-hitting grime and softer, more personal tracks is best exemplified in the one-two punch of Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2 and Return of the Rucksack towards the end of the record. The former stands head and shoulders above the earlier Pt 1, and in all honesty, most tracks on the album. It’s a stunning, gospel-influenced song which sonically leans more towards Kanye and Chance the Rapper than any of Stormzy’s grime contemporaries. MNEK’s vocals on the chorus are the best feature on the album by a country mile, and the message is so powerful that it can resonate with even the most obstinate atheist. No sooner do the choir vocals from this track bow out than the harsh beats of Return of the Rucksack barge in. This is one of the hardest and fastest grime tracks on this album where Stormzy returns to his unwaveringly self-assured lyricism with lines like “Yeah I think I’m the best I’m biased/ And I shoot for your chest like Payet”.

The final section of the record may be the strongest section, and ensures this debut goes out on a bang rather than a whimper. A standout is 100 Bags, which opens with an excerpt of Stormzy’s mum speaking to him on the phone, and the rest of the track is addressed to Stormzy’s “mumsy”, where he is brutally honest in apologising to her for his past behaviour while pledging to provide for her with the money he is making from his newfound fame. The swagger of penultimate track Shut Up sounds as frenetic on a 16-track album as it did in a Croydon park and shows just how good a flow Stormzy has when he really gets going.

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Fascinatingly, though, the album’s most confident track is succeeded by the most confessional. On Lay Me Bare, Stormzy does exactly as the title suggests and abandons the cocky persona he adopts so often to candidly discuss his struggles with depression, his relationship with his estranged father and the death of one of his childhood friends. In a time when there is so much attention being paid to male mental health (as there should be) it is refreshing to hear an artist like Stormzy tackle the issue and admit to struggling with depression so frankly, and the fact that the album ends on this track is very powerful.

While this is not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination (it is a bit long and drawn-out at some points, and the overall running time can make it a bit of a challenging listen for more casual fans) this is an incredibly strong debut album. The production throughout is excellent, and Stormzy uses the record’s 16 tracks to dynamically convey countless facets of his personality and persona. Stormzy is undoubtedly a grime artist but the fact that Gang Signs and Prayer sees him venture into mainstream hip-hop and even gospel demonstrates that he has ambitions bigger than his 6ft 5 frame, and wants to propel both himself, and the grime genre to stratospheric heights.

8/10


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ALBUM REVIEW: Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo

Controversial rapper provides a living, breathing messy piece of art

A common comment about any artist is that they’re not what they used to be, whether or not it’s a criticism depends on your own interpretation. In the Hip-Hop genre though it’s often a way to slate a rapper who has went against his original sound or image, whether it be selling out in order to make more money or throwing away any potential they once had in a bid to be more appealing.

It goes without saying that Kanye often bore the brunt of this. As his image constantly changed, his ego inflated and his sound began to mutate into something that, whilst still remarkable, was a far cry from what we heard back in his debut album The College Dropout.

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Just like his aforementioned image, The Life Of Pablo is an album that has never stayed consistent. Since its release in February, the Chicago rapper’s seventh LP has undergone various regenerations, most notably the recent update which followed the record being placed on streaming sites other than TIDAL. This constant evolution results in what can only be described as a self aware, messy masterpiece that is only set to get better as it ages.

This approach to albums is certainly refreshing and could change how we see music as an artform  but it’s certainly not an act of laziness on West’s behalf. The release of Real Friends back in January perfectly displayed the artist as someone who, while fueled by huge ambitions and claims, is a perfectionist at heart, tweeting “Un momento, there was a slight distortion in the main loop within Real Friends. It will be back up shortly. When it’s back up, all rippers please rip the new one instead”. Slag off his fashion career all you want but he’s not got careless.

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Real Friends represents more than just West’s work ethic though as both lyrically and instrumentally it stands out as a classic Yeezy track. In his most vulnerable position since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West voices his guilt regarding friends and family over a beautifully tragic sounding beat that ends with a poignant howl, evoking the same sadness and isolation that we have become accustomed to with Kanye’s more personal tracks.

This transitions perfectly into Wolves which bares the brunt of the reworking The Life Of Pablo has gone under. It isn’t just little sound adjustments like on the lyrically solid and appropriately titled Feedback but rather a whole new makeover, incorporating not only the original SIA and Vic Mensa verses but giving Frank Ocean his own individual track. “I’mma fix wolves” was a promise made repeatedly by West and it’s still not clear whether or not he’s just put a bandage on it.

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At times The Life Of Pablo sticks out as a greatest hits compilation rather than the next step for West which isn’t a bad thing considering his track record. There’s a definite cold sentiment to the Weeknd featuring FML that is reminiscent of 808’s while 30 Hours, which has definitely been downgraded since the original release, could slide onto the pink polo Kanye days with ease.

However, it does feel like the album is trying to say something personal which is more akin to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than any other release before this. Being free and liberated isn’t a message that is delivered heavy handedly and is a thread that continues over the running time, whether it be Kid Cudi saying it explicitly on Father Stretch My Hands or West’s desire to live a calmer life now that he’s a father on No More Parties In L.A.

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Unfortunately the lowest points of The Life Of Pablo seem to relate to this self portrait of Kanye. While the Taylor Swift line on Famous can be seen as a tongue in cheek piece of humour at best and a sexist remark at worst depending on what side you’re on, Facts give us yet another song that just feels like Kanye bitching about Nike yet again. Blips like this do result in a few worries that no matter how much updates this album goes through that it will still have some horribly dated moments.

While he may have a tendency to have a social media breakdown just as regular as his wife will post a selfie and his ambitions may have resulted in him accumulating a great amount of debt, there’s no doubt a great sense of this being art. Just like the most prolific artists who put their blood, sweat and tears into their work, Kanye has crafted a record that radiates hip hop greatness embedded with gospel and his own classic sound, despite the few times he colours outside of the lines.

8/10

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