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Review: “Gang Signs and Prayer” – Stormzy

Grime, a genre previously defined by singles, loosies and pirate radio broadcasts is undergoing a major facelift. At the frontlines of the renaissance is Stormzy and his debut album Gang Signs and Prayer, a 16-song masterpiece that is chock-full of surprises.

Stormzy is relatively new on the grime scene compared to other artists. Born in 1993, he was barely 10 years old by the time the genre began to gain a steady buzz in small circles within London and the UK. Despite his youth he quickly became a force to be reckoned with.

In 2014, he released his debut EP Dreamers Disease which received positive reviews and included the single “Not That Deep.” The single stayed true to grime form with a rapid barrage of rhymes and a high BPM (beats per minute, a grime staple). The following year Stormzy broke out with his freestyle “Shut Up.” The song has since received over 47.5 million views on YouTube. Throughout 2016 he was relatively quiet releasing a handful of singles and touring the world doing promotional work in collaboration with Adidas.

In 2017, he has no intention of being quiet. Gang Signs and Prayer perfectly straddles the line between old school grime and where the genre is headed. Stormzy ventures, somewhat unconventionally, outside of the genre’s comfort zone and successfully integrates elements of American hip-hop, R&B and gospel music.

The album begins with “First Things First.” Here, Stormzy addresses the naysayers, clearing his palate in preparation for the smorgasbord of beats the album has to offer. “Bad Boys,” the album’s third song, finds Stormzy going back and forth with Ghetts, a grime legend, and J Hus. The track is an ode to the genre’s lowly beginnings and the bright future that lies ahead.

On the album’s fourth song, “Blinded by Your Grace, pt. 1,” listeners are launched, sonically, across the pond to a studio in Chicago, Ill. Stormzy sheds the tough, street façade and adopts a vulnerable, gospel aesthetic that was influenced by Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. However, he doesn’t let listeners forget that this is a grime album. He gets right back into the breathtaking tempo with “Big for Your Boots.” Smashing the ephemeral calm created by “Blinded by Your Grace, pt. 1” taking listeners back to the South London neighborhoods he grew up in.

The remaining three quarters of the album is a surprisingly diverse, mature adventure. On “Velvet/ Jenny Francis,” the intro track from British singer NOA’s album For All We Know is chopped and pitched up providing an almost EDM feel while Stormzy’s sings over a simple, slurring beat. Two songs later he’s back to singing. “Cigarettes and Cush” is a love song of sorts with interchanging references to a lover and marijuana. The song features the American singer Kehlani and extra vocals on the hook are provided by Lily Allen.

The album draws to a close with “Shut Up” and “Lay Me Bare.” The relentless “Shut Up” sounds just as good now as it did in 2015 and its anti-authority, anti-establishment message seems all the timelier. To conclude the album, Stormzy gets sentimental and introspective rapping about his family, career and friends.

Gang Signs and Prayer will set a precedent for grime albums for years to come, forcing others to live up to its lofty innovations and forcing others to think outside the box.

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