Stormzy Has Cemented His Position as the New King of Grime
On his debut album 'Gang Signs & Prayer', the MC is reclining comfortably between mainstream success and underground credibility.
Coming from the underground and shooting for the stars can be a perilous mission. What if you get vertigo en route, and the dizziness and disorientation throws you off? What if you get dazzled by the increasing proximity to the bright lights, and they burn you up? What if you forget the precise topography of the place you set off from, the reason you started in the first place?
Despite his irrepressible smile and clean-hearted spirit, even Stormzy – even Stormzy – has not found the journey entirely smooth. There is bitterness about the speed of his phenomenal rise, haters willing him to fail, people who, as he puts it on the opening track of his debut album, smiled when he was forced to cancel several months of tour dates last September. At the time, the reason wasn't at all clear, but there might be some clues in "First Things First" – a kind of clearing of the throat, and a reminder that his glo-up hasn't been as effortless as he makes it look. "You was battling your girl, I was battling my depression," he spits. "Mad mad demons in my thoughts, young Stormz wasn't ready for the limelight / took a little break from the game, started praying – man, I had to get my mind right."
It's pretty easy to see where that pressure was coming from. We're in the unlikely situation where, even if the BRITs still can't seem to acknowledge it, everyone from the Tory culture minister to BBC newsreader Sophie Raworth are bigging up grime. Yet through it all Stormzy has been true to himself. "Big For Your Boots", the first proper single from Gang Signs & Prayer, includes the defiantly anti-road line "I was in the O2 singing my lungs out / Rudeboy you're never too big for Adele". Followed up with his performance at The Brits earlier this week, Stormzy has made both Adele and Ed Sheeran seem cool. How's that for a Midas touch?
If there's a lyric that perfectly encapsulates the root of Stormzy's greatness it might be that one about Adele. He may be the epitome of grime's self-confident reawakening (if grime's dead then how is he here?), but he is also very keen to show that there is life outside of underground purism, and beyond 140bpm. His ambition is irrepressible: "I find it strange and uncomfortable to aim for anything less than the greatest," he said in an interview with The Observer last week, matter-of-factly. "I don't want to be the best rapper in the UK. I want to be the best artist in the UK."
Of course, this exact kind of ambition – this willingness to be respected like any musician, not just a mic-man – has been around for almost as long as grime itself. Lethal Bizzle was taunting Wiley with the line "I'm an artist, you're just a rave MC" in a diss track back in 2004. Even then, the two were seen as separate circles in a Venn diagram: you could be one, but not both.
Today, former underground MCs are dominating the charts with grime, not urban-lite electro-pop. Gang Signs & Prayer was produced by Fraser T Smith – mastermind behind pop chart bangers from the likes of The Wanted, Adele and Leona Lewis. On the surface: hardly a grime producer. But Smith has been working with Kano and Dave – and perhaps even more tellingly, he produced Tinchy Stryder's two number 1 singles, back in 2009, a reminder that grime didn't just drop into the mainstream out of the clear blue sky yesterday. In a way, Smith's placement as a producer on this new record showcases how Stormzy is perfectly straddling the line between the mainstream and the underground.
Even when "Big For Your Boots" dropped a few weeks ago, there were people commenting that it was 'strangely mainstream... losing a little edge'. It's a bizarre statement: the bars are hard as nails, the track is by the legendary grime DJ and producer Spyro and, alongside its juddering bass and rapid-fire drums, it has a chipmunked vocal on it and melodramatic, cathedral-filling key stabs. That is... grime. That's what grime has always sounded like.
Haters are always going to hate, but particularly when someone has come up as fast as Big Mike. Fortunately, few MCs can dispense with their critics with as much effortless wit and style as him. "Shut Up" alone is full of perfectly devastating lyrical ju-jitsu: yeah he was gassed at the MOBO awards – so? He never won a MOBO before. You want to call him a back-up dancer for repping with Kanye at the Brits? Fine, all of your crew are back-up dancers. You want to talk about Lord of the Mics? You ain't even lord of your yard.
Arguably the greatest boost to Stormzy's underground credibility on GSAP comes on a skit, rather than a track. The Crazy Titch Interlude is a wild, deeply poignant intervention from the ghost of grime past – the former mic legend, now over a decade into his 30 year sentence for murder, provides a two minute history lesson and defence of the young hot-shot MC he has never met, straight down the phone line from HMP: "We started from the roots to this ting," says the embodiment of 'gangster grime', comparing Stormz to Neo and himself to Morpheus: "but now we've gone past the roots. We don't need a middleman. Mr Smith is nearly obsolete – we don't need those label ones again, we can actually just shot it ourself and cut through … I don't want to hear man say I'm too gang to listen to Stormzy – shut up! That's a lie. You ain't. You're just a hater."
Titch won't be disappointed by GSAP – and we shouldn't be surprised. Stormzy is an MC who, as his profile soared in the aftermath of "Shut Up's" runaway success, released "Scary", the least compromised, least poppy track you could imagine. GSAP is not short of grime bangers: among the new tracks, "Cold", "Return of the Rucksack" and "Mr Skeng" stand out for their fire-and-brimstone lyrical toughness. Of course, it helps that when Stormzy does slow things down, when he sings, he can pull it off – stoned love song "Cigarettes and Cush", with Kehlani, is the highlight of these. As with the chipmunked vocals, the emotional maximalism of a lot of GSAP's production, the Hollywood epic influence – and the slower tracks too – aren't a new thing for grime. Take it back to Wiley's debut, Treddin' on Thin Ice, where many of the highlights are reflective, slower lyrical narratives delivered over twinkling – not earth-shaking – production.
So if the music itself is mounting the divide, what are Stormzy's chances of being a bona fide pop star? "Grime is now fast becoming a commercial force to rank alongside the cultural impact it has enjoyed over the past decade", enthused music industry body BPI's official year-end report for 2016, citing Skepta's album sales and Stormzy's rise as evidence. This side of the music business may seem dry as sandpaper, the antithesis of grime's raw creative energy – "here be beauty, there be pie charts", as Jez put it in Peep Show – but it's illustrative of a new paradigm; grime as mainstream is, for now at least, the way things are.
Even though Stormzy is still independent, an advert for GSAP, backed by Spotify, screened twice during the Brits earlier this week – this is the music industry slowly trying to catch up with its new shape, just like Titch says. Big brands have been quicker to realise this than the music business. Over the last 18 months, while releasing precious few songs, Stormzy has linked up with Subway, Pepsi, Manchester United and, repeatedly, Adidas. Rather than getting all Bill Hicks about this and whingeing about the intrusion of commerce on art, the more interesting question is to ask what meaning lies therein: the writer Musa Okwonga has done just this, describing the three stripe-laden brand link-up between Paul Pogba and Stormzy as "the blackest football transfer ever".
But forget the pie charts, forget the brand synergy. GSAP has been a long time coming, and it's worth the wait. While some artists wobble walking the tightrope between mainstream accessibility and underground credibility, Stormzy has pulled out a deckchair and is reclining comfortably in the middle. Few artists have ever been more ready to be huge, or more deserving. New King is right.
You can find Dan on Twitter.