Music

Stormzy's Debut Album, 'Gang Signs & Prayer,' Is An Instant Classic

Is Stormzy the saviour of grime, or indeed, that of British pop? His new album 'Gang Signs & Prayer' offers a good argument for it.

“Gimme the crown man, I want that.”


Gang Signs & Prayer is an instant classic.

With time, the individual listener will confirm or disprove of this, but the feeling Stormzy's new album evokes—above or before critical reasons are given—is just as important a metre.

It's the feeling you probably got on listening to Get Rich or Die Tryin' or Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for the first few times, much like falling in love, you feel it like nothing else, but try putting it into words and they inadvertently fall short of the feeling it evokes. So a review will have to do after all.

First things first, opener “First Things First” is that staple of rap albums intros—part career overview, part statement of intent. One which the likes of Drake have utilised as a street single (once DJ Premier’s remit) namely on “4pm in Calabasas,” “6pm in New York,” and more relevant, “5am in Toronto,” whose cluttered piano loop has been modified only slightly to make the beat for “First Things First.”

As is evident all throughout Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy’s own personal narrative and phrasing, as they should, sets him apart from any lot even when he's chorusing a shared sentiment like, “Fuck giving money to people who don't like us/there's riots in the city, tell me where to sign up,” echoing Wiley from the intro to his career victory lap album, Godfather.

Grime’s continued resurgence is, in part, a blowback to frustrations with record labels, openly hidden fences in the British music industry, and wider displeasure with the well-being of young black people.

Now artists like Stormzy are able to do away with middlemen—record labels, show promoters, and any number of industry expertise—and sell their music and merchandise directly to fans.

This new level of autonomy is rightly a confidence booster, and one that makes otherwise rote braggadocio sound like a cast iron manifesto as it does on “Cold,” when Stormzy rhymes, “All my young black kings rise up man, this our year/all my young black Queens right there, it's been a long time coming, I swear."

The intent is serious and the sentiment truly touching. Despite his penchant for cutting battle-rhymes, combative delivery and an expected insistence on his supremacy, sending a rousing call to the many who swear by him shows a willingness for a concerted effort for dominance, or rebellion, to say the least.

First single “Big For Your Boots” is produced by Fraser T Smith, best known for his work with Adele. On paper, the pairing might appear incongruous, but the result is a real delight brimming with brag swag and a jittery drum pattern that's made even more so by the squealing soulful sample.

Here, major aspects of Stormzy’s talent are on display: the ability to adapt to a beat, clever and memorable metaphors, wordplay and that acerbic delivery—all golden tenets of a great MC. But he's also able to own up to and repurpose his vulnerabilities, enough to make his detractors appear silly.

On “Shut Up,” he has no problem admitting to his disappointment after losing out of a MOBO Award. "Why? Because I ain't won a Mobo before, duh.” An award he then won twice, in consecutive years (2014, 2015). Neither does he worry about risking ridicule by admitting to being “in the O2 singing my lungs out, rude boy you're never too big for Adele,” as he does on “Big For Your Boots.”

The two part suite “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1" and "Pt.2" with MNEK, are placed five songs apart. The reason could be to give the illusion of them being two separate songs (they aren't), or simply to separate the emotions each evoke (they do).

“Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1” is a somber worship song—“I can't escape you/I can't replace you”—and one on which Stormzy sings confidently, but not exceptionally well.

For "Pt. 2," singing duties are delegated to MNEK and a choir’s superior voice—both of whom elevate this second version into a rousing devotional.

Sticky Fingaz never truly eviscerated Eminem on “Remember Me”, but the mere fact that his guest verse matched that of Eminem on his chart conquering Marshall Mathers LP earns him more points.

Just last August when GiggsLandlord came out, Stormzy's towering verse on “The Blow Back” frankly made that of his host much less memorable.

This time around Grime Lord Ghetts' verse on “Bad Boys”, with J Hus on the hook, is reminiscent of Fingaz’ own but he goes a step further by seeming to anoint to Stormzy in a typically skillful verse, concluding that “it was all calm before Stormzy, now it's lightning.”

Of the many songs dedicated to mothers, Tupac’s “Dear Mama” is the lighthouse to which all should look. Even when from more humble (or less talented) artists, a searing honesty in songs like this always radiates.

In “100 Bags,” Stormzy's own celebration of his mother, what would have been triumphalism rises to the level of a covenant fulfilled, “always in and out of beef with the bailiffs, now I'm on the playlist.”

Stormzy, Gang Signs & Prayer album cover.

Not since 50 Cents’ Get Rich or Die Tryin' has any album cover been as arresting as that of Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayers, or so I’d like to think.

In the former, the bullet hole in the glass narrowed in on the crucifix on 50's body, which also held a holster and a durag on his head. In Stormzy's, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, already subject to countless reinterpretations, gets a most radical take, even more so than the Mary Magdalene subplot espoused by Dan Brown.

The original painting had a cast of 13 which has been whittled down to 9, dressed in all black outfits and balaclavas, including a child, with Stormzy hunched over the table staring into the camera.

The Last Supper is one of the most famous paintings in the Western world. Recasting himself as Jesus and his co-d's as the mantle-holders is only the pre-provocation before the first song “First Things First” comes on and continues.

Is Stormzy saying he is the saviour of grime, or indeed that of British pop, here to bring new life to it? But then The Last Supper is supposed to be his last meal before the redeemer’s death, isn’t it? Unless it's Jesus’ ascension to heavenly glory that Stormzy is positing here, in which case, as you were.

Sabo Kpade is an Associate Writer with Spread The Word. His short story Chibok was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. His first play, Have Mercy on Liverpool Street was longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. He lives in London. You can reach him at sabo.kpade@gmail.com

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Janet Jackson Returns With Afrobeats-Inspired Song & Video 'Made For Now' Featuring Daddy Yankee

The icon's latest is a nod to the sound, fashion and culture of the diaspora.

Ms. Jackson is back.

The iconic artist returns with her first single since the release of her 2015 album Unbreakable, and it's a timely nod to the "made for now" influence of afrobeats fashion, sound and culture.

On "Made For Now," which features Puerto Rican reggaeton titan Daddy Yankee, Janet Jackson does what she's done successfully so many times throughout her decades-long career: provide an infectious, party-worthy tune that's fun and undeniably easy to dance to. "If you're living for the moment, don't stop," Jackson sings atop production which fuses dancehall, reggaeton and afrobeats.

The New York-shot music video is just as lively, filled with eye-catching diasporic influences, from the wax-print ensembles and beads both Janet and her dancers wear to the choreographed afrobeats-tinged dance numbers, even hitting the Shoki at one point in the video. The train of dancers travel throughout the streets of Brooklyn, taking over apartment buildings and rooftops with spirited moves.

It's obvious that Jackson has been studying and drawing inspiration from the culture for some time now. She even hit the Akwaaba dance, popularized by Mr Eazi, during her Icon Award performance at this year's Billboard Music Awards.

The bouncing video, directed by Dave Meyers, features contributions from a number of creatives from Africa and the diaspora who were involved in the creation of the video, including designer Claude Lavie Kameni and choreographer Omari Mizrahi. Ghanaian health guru, Coach Cass pointed out some of the many dancers involved in the production on Instagram, who hail from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, Grenada and the US.

Ahead of the video's release, it garnered attention on social media when Jackson was spotted filming in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, wearing what many thought was a questionable fashion ensemble. The outfit in question only makes a small appearance in the video, and we're glad to see that Janet's other looks appear, at least slightly, more coordinated.

Watch the music video for "Made for Now" below. The singer is set to perform the song with Daddy Yankee live for the first time tonight on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, so be ready!

Audio

You Need to Hear Juls' New Single 'Saa Ara'


New hip-hop and highlife grooves from the celebrated UK-based Ghanaian producer.

By merging the diverse influence of growing up in Accra and East London, Juls has managed to cultivate a hybrid afrobeats style that has set him apart from the rest.

For his latest single, "Saa Ara," he teams up with award-winning rapper Kwesi Arthur and gifted lyricist Akan.

The brilliant fusion of vintage highlife instrumentals and booming hip-hop beats, along with Kwesi Arthur's lively chorus and Akan's fiery delivery gives the song a very spiritual and classical feel.

Soothe your soul this weekend with these tasteful sounds from Juls.

Listen to "Saa Ara" by Juls featuring Kwesi Arthur and Akan below.

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News Brief

FIFA Refuses To Meet with Nigeria's Sports Minister as Ghana Takes Steps to Avoid Ban

This could jeopardize Nigeria's qualifier against Seychelles in September, while the Ghanaian government has pledged not to dissolve its football association.

In lieu of the ultimatums Nigeria and Ghana's football associations faced from FIFA, one country is on its way to dodge the threat of being banned, while the other is not going down without a fight.

FIFA has refused a proposed meeting with Nigeria's sports minister, Solomon Dalung, to discuss problems in the country's football federation, BBC Sport reports. They say their leadership and the FIFA president is unwilling to meet during the proposed time period.

FIFA is giving the NFF until August 20 for Chris Giwa, who was acknowledged by the courts as the president of the federation, to leave the NFF offices.

Giwa's lawyer Ardzard Habilla asserts that FIFA can't ban Nigeria as the federation's issues need to be sorted out internally by the country's judiciary.

Habilla questions, "Do we take it that FIFA laws are superior to the judgment of the highest court in our land—the Supreme Court, and has FIFA elevated itself before the constitution of Nigeria?"

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