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Album review: Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer is a grime epic with American influences

Gang Signs & Prayer melds together the ceaseless energy of grime with tangible American influences and a stack of tenderer moments
Gang Signs and Prayer by Stormzy. Courtesy #Merky Records
Gang Signs and Prayer by Stormzy. Courtesy #Merky Records

Gang Signs & Prayer

Stormzy

#Merky Records

Three stars

For a genre packed with impatient young men, it is perhaps surprising that grime has lasted the distance long enough to slowly find its way to chart-topping status in its native Britain. But the raw-and-ready rap style that emerged from the ashes of UK garage in London in the early 2000s finally has its first No 1 album, in the shape of this debut LP from 23-year-old Michael “Stormzy” Omari. It is a milestone that was in the post, particularly since the grime album of last year, Skepta’s Konnichiwa, peaked at No 2, only beaten to the top spot by Radiohead.

Anybody who has followed the genre from early days when the likes of Dizzee Rascal and Wiley cut their teeth at East London raves might sniff at the way Gang Signs & Prayer melds together the ceaseless energy of grime with tangible American influences and a stack of tenderer moments. In truth, that canny eclecticism is the secret to Stormzy’s success.

Blinded by Your Grace Pt 1, for example, is a soulful lullaby, while the likes of Bad Boys, with echoes of record-setting Atlanta rapper Future, unrepentantly draws upon contemporary stateside hip-hop influences.

Purists can, however, find early solace in the classic grime sound of Cold, with its minimal key stabs and excitable sub-low bass, and Big for Your Boots, revving off sped-up female vocal samples.

Both wield breathless delivery that recalls early Dizzee, packed full of slang that will be familiar to grime fans and confuse the heck out of just about everybody else in the world.

There’s also a pointed nod to grime’s formative days on Crazy Titch, a phone conversation from prison with the eponymous rapper, who was one of the most-distinctive, hyperactive voices of the genre’s first wave.

Although you might question the wisdom of giving continued publicity to a man currently serving life for a murder using a sub-machine gun.

Of the slower moments, Velvet is the most heartfelt and believable. It’s a endearingly naive love song that ends with Omari laughingly declaring that people “thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing”, while 21 Gun Salute resembles a British answer to Chicago vocalist Chance the Rapper’s gospel-tinged wares.

With so many hyperlocal references – such as mention of a murder of a childhood friend in Thornton Heath, Omari’s South London district, on closer Lay Me Bare – it will be left to the lulls to push the Stormzy name outside his home country. But Gang Signs & Prayer gives him more of a fighting chance than most grime contemporaries.

aworkman@thenational.ae

Updated: March 13, 2017 04:00 AM

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