Gang Signs and Prayer is full of the unexpected. Yes, it’s often classic Stormzy, hitting with hard bars, easy put downs and aggressive beats. But it also features him singing, backed by sparse soul-styled organ melodies (and, at one point, MNEK), exposing something far more fragile. The grandstanding, swaggering verses Stormzy has made his name with are balanced by songs with lyrics full of introspection and personal experience. Sometimes, the tone is more akin to the work produced by another South London MC with a recently released album – Loyle Carner. Gang Signs and Prayer can often be jarring, jumping straight from the quiet Blinded by Your Grace Part 1 into the heavy bombast of recent single Big for Your Boots, for example. Stormzy seems to want you to go along with this. He asks you to trust his vision. And, by and large, I think you should.
It’s probably best to start with the old-school grime tracks. These make up the majority of the album, easily staking their claim for why Stormzy is currently so dominant. They’re pulsing, thriving, heavy and full of bravado. We open with First Things First, which immediately feels like a statement of intent. It’s a driving, full-on introduction. Cold follows, jokingly slating his competition over skittering breaks. In fact, Stormzy’s sense of humour is pretty easy to spot in most tracks. He practically curls his words around in Big for Your Boots, spitting out “boots” like he’s personally offended. There’s a strong strain of sarcasm; you can’t escape a sense that he’s half-playing around. At every point in the album, Stormzy refuses to take himself too seriously. He’s more than happy to admit he loves Adele, or joke about his own singing voice. Even the heaviest tracks are grounded, circling around the places he has known and the people he has grown up with. It’s hardly a shock, considering how he shot to fame after the viral success of Shut Up (present and correct at track fifteen). As he declares on Cold, “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted”. Where Shut Up was freestyled over an old XTC instrumental played on a phone, and (clearly) worked, the new tracks benefit massively from the production by Fraser T Smith and co. They have added new dimensions, swirling patter-like electronics into a beat for First Things First and blasting horn breaks for Return of the Rucksack. The album feels full of new ideas.
When reviewing Loyle Carner’s Yesterday’s Gone, I said I’d be surprised to see an artist like Stormzy or Skepta include a recording of their mum. Well, here I am, eating my words. She’s right there at the start of 100 Bags, praying for her son. It’s a move that epitomises the album’s other side – the side that’s inspired by soul and gospel, rather than grime. The side that has Stormzy discussing faith and depression, hope and family. It rears its head again and again, pointedly contrasting the aggression of the other tracks with unexpected intimacy. The move seems very, very intentional (it’s even used for comedy in the segue from Velvet into Mr Skeng). Often, things feel hushed and close-to-the-heart. Stormzy’s voice nearly cracks over the lines. And yes, he does sing. He’s not that bad, either.
It’s the force of ideas that holds Gang Signs and Prayer together. It’s the strength of Stormzy’s vision, shaped by the excellent production and wide array of collaborations (from Wretch 32 to MNEK via a phone call from Crazy Titch). That said, sometimes things are a little too disparate and the results a little too mixed. Nevertheless, it barely sags – an impressive claim for any debut, let alone one that’s sixteen tracks long.