"First things first, I've been putting in the work," spits Stormzy on the opener to 'Gang Signs & Prayer'. Few could deny it - from "fire in the park" to a full-on blaze of glory, the road to Michael Omari's debut album has seen him apply that hard graft, miner's mentality of his pre-fame days on an oil rig to the music game like few could rival. The results of his diligence are nothing short of stunning.
New Musical Express (NME) - 100 Based on rating 5/5
On 'Cold', a trap-influenced track on Stormzy's debut album, he boasts: "I just went to the park with my friends and I charted". He's talking about 'WickedSkengMan Part 4', the release that made history in 2015, becoming the first freestyle to break the UK charts. The 23-year-old south London grime don (real name Michael Omari) has reason aplenty for showing off, yet much of 'Gang Signs & Prayer' catches him in a more reflective, appreciative mood.
Gang Signs & Prayer deals in extremes, like its title would suggest - from the soaring end of days heft of "Mr Skeng" or the Ghetts and J Hus featuring "Bad Boys" to more introspective and sometimes uncomfortably reflective moments such as album closer "Lay Me Bare". Like his live shows, it's a record flush with rowdiness and regimentation, packed to the brim with purpose. Throughout the album, Omari's talisman is his self-determination.
For all the talk of new wave grime artists, Stormzy has long been standing head and shoulders -- literally and figuratively -- above his peers. Whether you agree or not with the term "new wave", it's arguably irrelevant to Michael Omari, who, on his debut album, continues to ascend the sometimes-restrictive nature of the genre. The opening tracks feature plenty of the characteristic chest puffing and hostility associated with grime, ticking genre boxes such as declaring the hard work put in on "First Things First," an Eskibeat homage aptly titled "Cold," and features from heavy hitters Ghetts and J HUS on "Bad Boys.
Grime MC Stormzy recently said with an interview with Capital 1xtra that every time he gets on the mic he spits with a "point to prove" mentality. This is evident throughout Gang Signs and Prayer as Stormzy arranges street declarations and religious fervor side by side in a way that makes for a compelling piece of art. Gang Signs and Prayer begins with the earth-shaking First Things First.
On his Mercury Prize-winning LP Konnichiwa last year, Skepta challenged listeners in asking, "Wanna hate on me? Wanna hate on Storm? / Fuck that, let the kings in. "
The prominent grime MC was referencing his 23-year-old prodigy Stormzy, a South Londoner regarded as the next to take the grime throne in the wake of viral hits and an onstage appearance next to Kanye West at the 2015 BRIT Awards.
Stormzy's self-released debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, plays itself in the two directions its title mentions both lyrically and musically.
S everal cycles on from its inception, grime has finally begun reaping its rewards as one of the defining sounds of UK youth, a fiercely local innovation with potentially global reach. Or it had been, until the Brits inexcusably decided to ignore the genre once again. Following recent milestone LPs by scene elders - Skepta (the Mercury-winning Konnichiwa), Kano and Wiley - all eyes are now on the younger set.
T he second track of his debut album finds Stormzy reflecting on his rise to fame. "I just went to the park with my friends, and I charted," he says of the video for Shut Up, which went from YouTube sensation to gold-selling Top 10 hit, transforming him from a hotly tipped grime MC into a mainstream star. It was obviously a bit more complicated than that, but the 23-year-old still seems like something of an overnight sensation compared to many of the grime stars he's frequently mentioned in the same breath as.
Two years ago, Michael Omari stood on the stage at the 2015 Brit Awards, shoulder-to-shoulder with a who's who of UK rappers. Clad in all black, the MC known as Stormzy rocked along with Skepta, JME, Novelist, Jammer, Krept & Konan and dozens of others, flanking Kanye West as he performed his Paul McCartney collaboration "All Day" amid a sea of white faces in tuxedos and cocktail dresses. It was an important moment for British hip-hop and grime in particular.
It was the last night of Outlook Festival in Croatia when the skies opened up. Stormzy had taken the stage to a massive crowd at the historic Fort Punta Christo as the 2016 festival headliner, and just as the towering MC dove into a hype rendition of 'Where Do You Know Me From', the squall struck and lightning ripped the dark night apart like a divine finale. Fast-forward six months to the eve of the release of the South London artist's long-anticipated debut album Gang Signs & Prayer and the weather reacted in a similar fashion, as Storm Doris barreled through the UK, battering it with 90mph winds, blizzards and rainstorms.
Stormzy's initial mixtape moves and early successes at the UK's MOBOs, a Kanye-endorsed grime takeover at the 2015 Brit Awards, and subsequent raucous singles "Know Me From" and "Shut Up" have all helped boost his stock in the game. But it was his performance with Ed Sheeran at this year's Brit Awards, and a major co-sign from Adele, that have elevated the London-based rapper to a more global mainstream level lately. Indeed, his profile is now such that when cops busted down his door last month because - get this - they thought he was breaking into his own apartment.
Stormzy, just like Kano, has fooled most if not all of us. The latter, prior to the release of last year's Made in the Manor, released a succession of tracks - 'Three Wheel-Ups', 'Hail', 'Flow of the Year' - that were relentlessly up-tempo and laden with swagger. We might then have thought that the LP to follow would be aimed primarily in the direction of the dancefloor.
Stormzy, it seems, is the everyman MC. Adored by everyone from Ed Sheeran to Adele, from the disaffected youth who constituted grime's original, core audience, to the Nandos-munching students hashtagging along to his hits, he has penetrated the mainstream more quickly, and more effectively, than almost any MC before him - save, perhaps, Dizzee Rascal. Unlike Dizzee, though, he did all this before releasing a full length album.