So the time has come, Stormzy aka WickedSkengMan has finally dropped his long awaited album “Gang Signs & Prayer” on his own independent label #Merky Records.
Following subtle hints via billboards, a triumphant return to social media, a new single and a sold out tour the music that finally matters is now here and Grime fans are eager to know whether or not Stormzy has delivered on the hype. The answer to this question will obviously be unique to each listener but here I’ve written down my thoughts on each individual track, enjoy!
Stormzy Gang Signs & Prayer Track by Track Review
First Things First
The album opens fittingly with a backdrop of rain and thunder until the song drops into a twinkling melody, with minimalist percussion, and occasional bleeps, clicks and echoes. His flow starts off slow and deliberate; addressing issues such as his absence from the Grime scene, personal issues and social media drama and his newfound fame. I got the impression on this track Stormzy is holding back slightly, taking things at his own pace and easing the listener into the album on his own terms.
Originally revealed at live shows last year,and in contrast to what it’s title may suggest, “Cold” is an upbeat and celebratory tune. Complete with brass instrumentation and a bright synth melody this track immediately hits you in the face with just how happy and positive it sounds, and were it not for the MC’s trademark vocals you’d never imagine that this would be a Stormzy song. Impressively however this track does not make the jump to full on pop song in my opinion but it’s clear that this isn’t a traditional Grime song. The lyrics themselves are positive and uplifting with Stormzy referencing his previous achievements “I just went to the park with my friends and I charted (Wow)” and encouraging others to do the same“All my young black kings rise up/ Man this is our year/ And my young black queens right there/ It’s been a long time coming I swear.”.
Bad Boys (featuring Ghetts & J Hus)
And after the lightness normal service resumes with “Bad Boys”. A quick glance at the tracklist and this track is definitely one that jumps out, featuring grime legend Ghetts and rising star J Hus. Now I’m going to say it, for me personally, J Hus steals the show on this track. The two verses contrast well with Stormzy’s slower, heavier delivery in the first verse met by Ghetts’ razor sharp bars and rapid flow in the second verse. But it’s J Hus’ melodic yet deadpan chorus which takes this track to the next level differing from his usual tongue-in-cheek afrobeat-tinged rapping but he pulls this off spectacularly.
Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1
After the initial flurry of heavy tunes “Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1” offers the listener their first chance to breathe. The track has a soulful and gospel-like sound to it, Stormzys’ smooth vocals are set against a simple piano melody. Now personally I can appreciate the talent that Stormzy is displaying on this track but for me it seems a little out of place here in the tracklist and kind of takes the energy out of the listening experience. I found myself kind of drifting this song waiting for the next heavy song to drop.
Big for Your Boots
I really didn’t have to wait long! The lead single off the album is Stormzy at his best, doing what he is known for. I love the beat on this track, in my opinion it brings the elements that I love from classic Grime along with those that have come to define the genre in its current phase. The pitched up samples and strings evoke memories of noughties grime tracks but the intensity and richness of the sound show how Grime has evolved. In terms of bars Stormzy doesn’t hold back, his delivery is rapid and his flow aggressive. Lyrics wise it has been suggested that some of the bars on this track are indirect shots at other MCs but this has not been confirmed by the man himself. What is clear on this track though is that Stormzy is laying down a benchmark for other MC’s in 2017.
Velvet / Jenny Francis (Interlude)
The first interlude on the album features high-pitched “chipmunk” vocals sampled from singer NAO’s “Intro (Like Velvet) and tinny hi-hats with smooth vocals. This is an R&B song, adding even more to the different genres and sounds present on the album. The last verse on the track begins with the tongue in cheek lines “Yeah, alright alright alright, okay okay okay / Man thought that Stormzy’s good at singing *laughs*” and features Stormzy singing almost acapella before leading into a skit from radio host Jenny Francis announcing the track as being on “#MERKY fm”. The last part of the song shows Stormzys’ playful side and the track as a whole shows he’s not afraid to do what he wants and write an R&B song.
Heavy string chords and military-esque drums announce “Mr Skeng” a dark, heavy track. The thing that struck me with this track is that it again reminds me of noughties grime tracks, but things are different. The strings on this track in particular are a feature I remember heavily from the grime i used to listen to in my teenage years; compared to those songs however everything sounds richer, more polished and more organic. It sounds like this track actually uses real instruments as opposed to samples and I can almost imagine it being performed with a live string section.
Cigarettes & Cush (featuring Kehlani)
American R&B singer Kehlani is one of my favourite R&B singers of the moment and a song featuring Stormzy and her sounds like a dream collaboration, but not one I honestly ever expected to see. In addition to Kehlani, the track also features Lily Allen who is uncredited in the Album’s tracklisting. The piano-led beat is definitely contemporary R&B and is relaxing and dreamlike, the chorus features Kehlani, Lily Allen and Stormzy all singing. This track is a classic R&B slow jam, a track meant for chilling out to.
21 Gun Salute (Interlude) (featuring Wretch 32)
The lyrics on this track read like a prayer, opening with a gentle hook from Wretch 32 that flows like poetry. Stormzy once again shows the versatility of his delivery, and you really get the sense of emotion in his voice as he opens up. All of this is set over a gentle melody but this serves only to be in the background, it’s the vocals that steal the show on this track.
Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2 (featuring MNEK)
The same hook from Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1 plays and is immediately followed choral vocals. When the track drops electric guitars, choral vocals and the organ in the background really take this track far out of the realms of what you expect from Stormzy. This song reminded me of Chance the Rapper’s recent output, his latest album “Colouring Book” heavily features religious influences and gospel music blended with hip-hop. In the past Stormzys’ music has not featured much in the way of religion but, after listening to the album properly, the title “Gang Signs & Prayer” begins to make sense and highlight this aspect of Stormzys’ life.
Return of the Rucksack
After a trio of light songs you’d be forgiven to forget that this was a Grime album, “Return of the Rucksack” is another heavy, Grime banger in the same vein as “Big For Your Boots”. The beat is frenetic with rumbling bass, pining strings and hard-hitting drums. The track starts and ends with a segment that sounds like a declaration of war from Stormzy “I don’t wanna be on Lord of the Mics with shit MC’s, na bro, I’m above that / Using my name for a dead bit of fame, tryna get up in the game, yeah right nigga, fuck that / Stormz’ ain’t grime and Stormz’ ain’t clash, look don’t be fooled ’cause the war ting, I love that / Call this the return of the rucksack, oi Flipz get the four-door truck back”.
100 Bags opens with a recording of Stormzys’ mum, it’s a deeply personal touch and sets the tone for the rest of the song. The song is pure “conscious rap”, dedicated to Stormzys’ mum, throughout which Stormzy thanks his mother for all that she has done for him over the years and apologising for any problems he may have caused her. It’s an intimate moment on the album and one that stands out as being truly personal to Stormzy.
Don’t Cry for Me (featuring Raleigh Ritchie)
Now this track is simply beautiful, Raleigh Ritchies soaring vocals making this one of the most memorable tracks on the album for me. The lyrics on this album are amongst the best on the album in my opinion “Man I was in history class when my bredrin died / So vexed that I cried / But I come from a place where mandem can’t let shit slide / So we rest in pride”, “Can’t chat about pain, just look at my veins / Look brudda, I bleed all that / Damn, I just want all my people back / Yo”. It’s on this track that we see Stormzy at his most vulnerable and his most human.
Crazy Titch (Interlude)
This interlude features a clip of Stormzy in the booth on the phone with fellow MC Crazy Titch. An excellent quote is included “If you put all bias aside, Stormzy has to be Neo, he has to be / So therefore that makes me Morpheus so I’m telling the council right now”. It serves as the perfect intro for the next track.
Now this is a track that requires no introduction! The highest charting freestyle on the UK charts is arguably Stormzys’ best known song. It’s a no-holds-barred thrill ride of a track! On a personal level this track always gets me hyped up and is my go-to song whenever I need motivation.
Lay Me Bare
So here we are, the final track! Dissonant voices float in the background with piano chords sitting over them, occasional pitched up vocals and sparse drums making up the rest of the beat. As the title would expect the track is deep and personal. The chorus is particularly chilling “One more time I’ll make it clear / This some shit I hate to share / Escape this life or pay the fare / Grab this gun and aim it there / Shoot my pain and slay my fear / Before I die, I say my prayer / Don’t worry about the mess just lay me there”. Here we get a sense of the anxiety that Stormzy often faces and the dark thoughts that haunt him “Like man’a get low sometimes, so low sometimes / Airplane mode on my phone sometimes / Sitting in my house with tears in my face / Can’t answer the door to my bro sometimes”. I find it incredible when artists write songs that deal with issues such as mental health as it really helps to normalise these issues and make them easier to talk about. Here we see Stormzy as an ordinary person facing the same issues that will affect his fans, I definitely found that this track resonated with me.