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. Sure, it may sound absurd to equate the fervent rise of the 23-year-old grime artist with an unpredictable climate, but the ironic string of coincidences certainly acts as an ethereal symbol.
Stormzy may not control the weather but as an independent artist, he's maintained control over more than many thought him capable of – including his own narrative.
The thunder rumbles and ivory dances when Stormzy touches the opening track 'First Things First', using the intro as an aggressive address to the judgmental collective voice of those who took advantage of the rapper's temporary absence this past autumn to construct an air of doubt around Michael Omari's destined place in the grime scene. Big Mikey acknowledges his cynics with an articulate response – tearing down critique and shredding expectation – to rebuild his story in his own likeness. For many, it came as a surprise that the progressive release is less concerned with securing Stormzy's position as the leader of grime and more focused on his spot as one of the biggest names in UK music, with a project unrestrained by the confines of genre to define him as a singular transcendent artist.
"I do rap, then I do grime then I do rap, then I sing and I roll right back/ They said you ain't gonna blow like that," the MC barks on the album's grime pinnacle, 'Mr. Skeng'. Along with previously released tracks like the 'Shut Up' and 'Big For Your Boots', it's one of the brief foreseeable moments that lives up to fiery lyrical expectation that propelled the brewing storm leading up to his debut album, with antagonistic bars delivered by the 6'5 artist's trademarked rumbling growl. But they're passing arches within Mikey's multifaceted epic, which he delivers as more of a global gospel blockbuster than the grime album many anticipated it to be.
Gang Signs & Prayer is as insightful as it is extravagant, gracious as it is haughty, and divine as it is gritty, which is both a blessing and a curse depending on whether or not you were looking for more gang signs than prayer. Rather than dropping as an aggressive statement from the buzzworthy Stormzy, it's a completely transparent look into the mind and heart of Michael, apart from any public moniker. His softer, romantic side is carried on songs like Nao-sampling 'Velvet' and Kehlani-featuring 'Cigarettes & Cush', with political and personal statements made on '100 Bags' and 'Lay Me Bare'. But where he's most poignant and unpredictable is on the two-part gospel-tinged 'Blinded By Your Grace', where he details the extent of his faith and gratefulness to his God for his plethora of unprecedented blessings.
Soaring melody and symphonic production may have taken Stormzy from underground MC to chart-topping artist, but strategic features from the likes of MNEK, Raleigh Ritchie and Kehlani on Gang Signs & Prayer are responsible for helping him maintain that title, acting as suitable aids where Stormzy's vocal ability falters. At times, it does. His most influential feature, however, comes via a telling interlude from Crazy Titch, the controversial MC currently serving a life sentence for murder. Like Chip on Skepta’s Konnichiwa, the appearance is a cosign from the streets, acknowledging the spine of the entire project, stapled as a marker of where the artist first emerged from.
"But what people do need to understand is, you see anyone from my era of grime, need to recognize that if you cannot fathom that this guy's about to take it from a second-rate genre to a first-rate genre then you need to look at yourself and be ashamed," Titch says over the phone.
Ashamed may be a stretch, but Stormzy's brave decision to push back against the predictable current written for him with a passionate momentum in the name of authenticity is a noble one and truly a risk that has paid off thanks to an unyielding fanbase. For those concerned over which category to file Stormzy under now, he’s distinctly laid it out for you. He's just Big Mikey - Abigail’s yout but God's son.