Dec 19, 2022
By Chris Thiessen
In 2019, Stormzy was British royalty. After becoming the first Black British solo artist to headline Glastonbury in a critically-lauded firestorm performance of politics, celebration, and beauty, the rapper born Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. confronted his kingly status with great nuance on Heavy is the Head—an impressive collection of modern day psalms that bring to mind the faith and fury of the biblical King David set in grimy London. Three years later, Stormzy raps on “This Is What I Mean,” the titular track of his third album—and an outlier banger on this slow-burner project—that “This ain’t the same man who said his head was heavy.” The rest of the album, marked by heartbreak, self-reflection, grief, and humility, would beg to differ.
While Stormzy has always fused his grime with the smoother sounds of Afrobeats, R&B, and gospel, it’s these final two that capture his near-undivided attention on This Is What I Mean. Alongside a swath of producers including Prgrshn and P2J (with notable musical contributions from Jacob Collier and Sampha), Stormzy creates some of the most soulful and striking music of his career. On the aforementioned title track, Stormzy spits over a devilish choir delivering staccato vocal lines alongside orchestral stabs and a subterranean roller coaster of bass. The rest of the album’s tone is more heavenly, however. Warm electric piano warbles give way to vibrant bursts of saxophone, electric guitar, and R&B drums on “Fire + Water.” Gospel piano chords are cradled by symphonic strings on “Holy Spirit.” Most memorable though is the album’s angelic gospel choir, lending community voice to Stormzy’s heartbreaks and holding him up when he feels like he’s falling.
For much of the album, Stormzy hardly lifts his voice above a whisper, like he’s slipping us a note under the door. Sometimes this exercise in solemnity and sincerity doesn’t quite land emotionally, like when he’s reminiscing about a previous relationship when he “gave you orgasms/more than you can fathom” on “Fire + Water,” or when the prayerful pleas fail to escape contemporary Christian music cliché, like when he sings “You’re the reason that I pray/Fill me with the light of day/When you hold me in your arms/Makes me feel some type of way” on “Holy Spirit.”
Elsewhere, Stormzy truly expresses the liberating power of earnest prayer by choosing to speak from personal pain rather than religious catchphrase, like on “Please”: “Please, Lord, give me the strength/To forgive my dad for he is flawed and so am I/So who am I to not forgive a man who tries/I see his soul, I know it cries.” This penitent and personal expression leads to jubilant and public celebration on “My Presidents Are Black,” where Stormzy’s faith isn’t confined to navel-gazing, but energizes him to take pride in the prosperity of his community. The difference between songs like these and songs like “Holy Spirit” is an important one—that the heaviness of the crown isn’t lightened by platitudes, but by true vulnerability and soul-searching alongside the people around us. Stormzy finds himself caught between both here, but he’s learning. It’s hard not to cheer for him in this step of the journey. (www.stormzy.com)
Author rating: 7/10
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