‘Not just another album’: Stormzy’s third act takes anticipation to fever pitch

by 24britishtvNov. 18, 2022, 11 p.m. 13
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The UK albums chart has been dominated by American behemoths over the past few weeks, with Taylor Swift and Drake dropping blockbuster albums. That could all change when one of Britain’s most successful grime stars ever comes home to roost. Next Friday, Stormzy will release This Is What I Mean, his first album in three years. First teased during a live show earlier in the year and finally announced this week, it is expected to be one of the most commercially successful releases of the year.

This Is What I Mean will be Stormzy’s first release since Heavy Is the Head, the monumental capstone to a charmed 2019 that saw him net his first No 1 single, Vossi Bop, and become the first UK grime star to headline Glastonbury. It was an album that brought grime, and Stormzy, to the centre of British culture – a transition that began with his 2017 debut Gang Signs & Prayer, the first grime album to reach No 1 in the UK.

“I think what has helped Stormzy to succeed is his ability to straddle the line between commerciality and credibility – you’ll see him on the Graham Norton show, but also on Shade Borough and 1Xtra,” says Hattie Collins, author of This Is Grime. “You’ve got this guy whose back catalogue has all these great bangers, he’s as hard as anybody else, he can rap with the best of them – but he’s also vulnerable. It’s that ability to cross those worlds that’s made him particularly successful among his peers.”

That success has seen Stormzy move to places that few musicians could dream of. He has become a well-known activist and philanthropist, making himself known as a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and, in 2018, launching #Merky Books, a Penguin Random House imprint whose mission statement says it seeks to publish “bold voices from untraditional spaces”. To date, Merky has published lauded works by first-time novelist Hafsa Zayyan, viral writer Jade LB and, most recently, a memoir by children’s laureate Malorie Blackman. Since 2018, Stormzy has also funded a scholarship for Black British students at the University of Cambridge, which has provided financial aid to 19 students to date.

At the same time, Stormzy has faced criticism for the way his music has begun to engage with mainstream pop. Wiley, the acknowledged godfather of grime, called out Stormzy in a vicious diss track in 2020 for befriending and working with singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. The singles for This Is What I Mean have showcased a quieter, more R&B-focused sound.

“Stormzy is the perfect person to be in that mainstream conversation. Everyone loves him: the kids love him, the old ladies in shops love him. Who else is gonna do that?” says Joseph Patterson, editor-in-chief of the hip-hop culture website Complex UK. “There isn’t anyone else that can really do what Stormzy does and still have respect from ‘the streets’, or whatever you wanna call it. Obviously, he has to cater to other people.”

“Everyone’s looking forward to what Stormzy is gonna bring next because the past two albums have gone down well. But as a hardcore rap and grime head, I’m looking for the bars: the lyricism, the pen.”

There have been few clues as to what This Is What I Mean may sound like. Gary Younge, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and one of the few journalists to have interviewed Stormzy in the past few years says the pandemic influenced him greatly. “If you think of how meteoric Stormzy’s trajectory has been, there was then this forced stop,” he says. “I think this album is probably the product of him taking stock: [he’s] been running and running and running without taking much breath.”

“There’s a sense that he now feels liberated from expectations about what he might do. When Heavy Is the Head came out, he was about to go on tour; getting the energy from the crowds would have fed into whatever he was doing next,” says Younge. “But he didn’t do that, he stayed at home. This is not just another album – it’s a statement about his freedom as an artist.”

Whether Stormzy’s album will live up to the success of his past two, Patterson says, will ultimately come down to the thing that started it all: his potent combination of skill and geniality. “He’s still reachable. He is still very much rooted in his Blackness, in UK Black Britishness, in his Africanness,” he says. “As long as he’s rooted, he’s always gonna be respected across the board. Stormzy is the guy, there’s no question.

“Like everyone says, Stormzy does what he wants – and he’s gonna succeed anyway.”

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