Stormzy review, This is What I Mean: Ambitious alchemy and inner peace take center stage

“I think I’m Kanye mixed with Donny Hathaway,” Stormzy raps on the title track of his third album. That’s what I mean. There’s definitely a touch of the troubled West’s ambitious alchemy in the track, which spirals from a lovely piano intro (think kids’ ballet rehearsal) to a lilting bass blast of boastfulness that’s given dramatic ballast with operatic backing vocals .

But there really is more to Hathaway than the Croydon-born grime star. Not only because of the jazzy warmth with which this album is based on his soulful ballad. It’s there in the rich, stable sincerity of his singing. Like Hathaway, 29-year-old Michael Owou Jr. has a voice that can pierce the darkness and soothe your heart. Even if you didn’t know Stormzy is the kind of national treasure who invests in scholarship programs to support black children through Cambridge University, his decency feels embedded in his frequency. It’s backed up here by lyrics that feel emotionally responsible. Take Hide and Seek. On this softly melodic track he seeks forgiveness from a woman who is “good to me like collards”. The older he gets, the better his rapping’s conversational-denominational flow, allowing him to meander through a 10-minute boast like “Mel Made Me Do It” without breaking a sweat or losing the listener’s attention . He raps about traveling to Dubai and not drinking weed like he’s sitting next to you at a London bus stop.

Stormzy recorded this album on the Essex island of Osea, a flat, small, oval slab of estuary mud off a coast fringed by a mile of static caravans and suburban red-brick terraces. But its modest sea-level geography is regularly offset by stunning (and fast-moving) skies and the kind of intoxicating pink-gold sunsets you could pour over ice. It also features – quite unexpectedly – the world-class studio that lures the likes of Rihanna to its gray shores. “This is what I mean” reflects all of this by putting Stormzy’s English slang on a broader stage. Many of the tracks share songwriting credits with Jacob Collier, and one can often hear the inventive British jazz musician’s influence in the staggered layers of vocals and the delayed echo of the beat. Although much of the music is keyboard-based (with Dion Wardle delivering a laid-back elegance), the romance is reinforced by unabashed waves of cello, flute, trumpet and a fantastic gospel choir.

He could have dialed in a whole host of A-list contributors on the red carpet (and did in the video with Mel, calling everyone from Usain Bolt to Louis Theroux), but Stormzy consistently uses hungrier, lesser-known vocal collaborators. Sampha adds a wistful chant (“Please don’t leave me like that”) to the 22-year-old “Sampha’s Plea”. South Londoner Debbie Ehirim (who signed to Def Jam earlier this year) adds sweet (but compromising) vocals straight from James Blake’s playbook to “Firebabe,” an intimate love song with delayed echoes in the percussion. And she confidently takes the lead on the album’s stunning conclusion, “Give it To the Water.”

He addresses his separation from Maya Jama in the sad “Bad Blood”. The political “war cry” (in his words) comes with “My Presidents Are Black,” a treacherous celebration of Britain’s black community where he challenges the white patriarchy. “Tell [Former Secretary of State for Education] Michael Grove, we’ve got something for your nose… Didn’t you know we’re trying to implement our story through the schools?” He also warns us about the murky menace of EDL marches on “I Found My Smile,” while he rises above bigotry to find inner peace.

Blues legend Mahalia Jackson famously said that after singing a blues song she still had the blues, but after singing gospel she had hope. Stormzy repeatedly affirms his Christian faith on this album. But you don’t have to share that to feel his righteous Black Britain optimism and musical generosity. The artist, who owes his name to the darkest weather, has discovered “that the sun is behind my rain”. Stormzy review, This is What I Mean: Ambitious alchemy and inner peace take center stage


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