April 2020

Arts & Letters

Grime boss: Stormzy

By Anwen Crawford

© Gordon Stabbins / WireImage / Getty Images

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

On January 7 this year, not even a month after the release of his second studio album, Heavy Is the Head, British MC and rapper Stormzy dropped a new, non­album track called “Disappointed”. Just two minutes long, “Disappointed” was one salvo in a furious exchange, played out in song, between Stormzy, 26, and another British MC, Wiley, 41 – the latter the first master, the former the heir apparent, of grime, the London music style that has threatened to go global for the better part of 20 years but never quite has. Until now perhaps. In the video for “Disappointed”, Stormzy stalks a moodily lit recording studio, spliff in one hand, mug of tea in the other. He warns the “old man” Wiley that he will come to regret their war for precedence. “I’m so big the only thing bigger than me last year was Brexit,” Stormzy spits.

It’s hyperbole, but only just: in Britain, at least, Stormzy’s a superstar. Heavy Is the Head – released the day after December’s general election there – delivered Stormzy his second UK No. 1 album, following his debut, Gang Signs & Prayer, in 2017. Last year he became the first black British male solo artist ever to headline the annual Glastonbury Festival, an honour hitherto largely reserved for white rock bands: Radiohead, Muse, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys. Coronavirus has left Stormzy’s ambitious world tour – including planned shows in Australia in May – looking unlikely. But he’s popular enough to have been booking the big sheds, including the 10,000-capacity Melbourne Arena, even if he’s not quite a chart-topping proposition here yet.

For those who’ve kept a weather eye on grime this past decade or longer, the question is why. Why is Stormzy breaking globally, out of all the grime artists who’ve come and gone, many of whom have not been seen or heard outside of homemade videos and London pirate-radio sets? And when grime’s veterans – Wiley, the brilliant Dizzee Rascal – have achieved intermittent mainstream success in the UK but remain practically unknown entities outside of it?

In musical terms, the answer is clear: it’s because Stormzy’s been smart enough to add hip-hop, pop and R’n’B to his repertoire, turning his albums and live sets into medleys of contemporary song style. The hectic energy of grime serves as a base from which he can depart for slower, sweeter grooves, returning to his foundation when the pace needs a jolt. His musical forays into gospel and R’n’B, especially live, are marked by a vulnerability that’s inverse to his confidence as a rapper and MC: he’s no great singer, but he leaves his voice bare, unmediated by autotuning. He’s got the bangers and he’s also got the ballads.

But if speed is the essence of grime – a subject to which we’ll return – then Stormzy’s career trajectory has been faster, and upwardly steeper, than that of any grime artist before him. Nor have his barrier-smashing efforts been confined to the music industry: in 2018 he founded a Cambridge University scholarship in his name, to fund undergraduate places for financially disadvantaged black students, and he also teamed up with Penguin Random House to launch a publishing imprint, #Merky Books, aimed at fostering young and diverse authors.

“I done a scholarship for the kids, they said it’s racist /That’s not anti-white, it’s pro-black”, he raps on “Crown”, from the new album. The question of why Stormzy, and why now, has clearly occupied the man himself, for the main subject of Heavy Is the Head is his own precipitous rise from underground name to popular sensation. Five years ago, he was still self-­releasing tracks on YouTube. And though the man born Michael Omari is not the first famous musician to write songs about the stresses of fame, sometimes this pensive, self-referential mood undermines his sharp and often witty lyrical craft. “Brought this on myself, so tell me who’s to blame?”, he muses on “Rachael’s Little Brother”. (Stormzy’s older sister, Rachael Anson, is a well-regarded DJ.) The bad joke of fame, on all available evidence, is that fame is a mirage of fellowship and endless good feeling while you’re chasing it, and then delivers nothing but a desert of loneliness. But it’s also true – as it is of many superstars – that Stormzy’s own charisma is best lit by a single spotlight. “Still a league apart, guess I got a cleaner heart,” he determines, in the same song. Heavy Is the Head circles round and around this contradictory state of being, in which Stormzy loves and loathes, with equal fervour, his own pre-eminence. Big like Brexit? It’s a burden as much as a boast.

The first thing to understand about grime is that it shares a common musical ancestor with hip-hop, that being reggae, and diverges from there along its own peculiarly British line of evolution. The whole notion of rapping over an existing beat began in Jamaica, with MCs “toasting” – talk-chatting – over existing instrumental recordings, aka dub plates, at street parties and dance halls. A reggae or dancehall MC is partly there to be a live commentator on the music, the crowd, the atmosphere; it’s their duty, as much as the DJ’s, to get the party going.

Rap’s reggae origins were quickly subsumed, in the United States, by the existing African-American musical styles of soul, funk and disco, which also fed into the nascent hip-hop scene. In Britain, however, reggae’s influence remained strong, and it seeded an entire lineage of dance music, including jungle, drum ’n’ bass and UK garage, which helped sustain a vibrant rave and club culture through the 1990s and beyond. These were styles that retained reggae’s sonic roominess – massive bass weight, a crisp and percussive top end, and a whole lot of space in between – but increased the pace. Really increased it. Hence grime, born in the early 2000s, the signature speed of which is 140 beats per minute. As a point of comparison, the highest-ranking hip-hop tune on the ARIA chart as I write this, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box”, is 120 bpm. That’s damn well lazy by grime standards.

Listeners accustomed to hip-hop’s flow may hear grime as artlessly frantic; the genre’s unforgiving tempo requires that MCs spit their syllables with little heed to the kind of parrying – those ebbs and pauses, rhythmic flips and shifts – more common to American rap. And grime’s arrangements – often recycled from tune to tune in the same economical way that Jamaican reggae artists have long repurposed each other’s instrumental dubs – can be harsh, borrowing much of their brain-jabbing energy from video-game soundtracks: rubbery, squeegee-ing bass frequencies, licks of enamel-bright synthesiser, drums that sound both fat and dirty. Add to this the idiosyncrasies of London street slang, and the opaqueness of native London accents, and you have a style pretty much designed to keep the casual listener at bay. But grime is also exhilarating, and often funny, its culture of braggart lyricism passing through the other side of serious and into foolery. “Stormzy’s blick, Stormzy’s black / Stormzy’s hairline’s going way back,” rapped the man himself on “Wickedskengman 4”, rehearsing his critics. “But I still fuck your girl, go and retweet that.” The denouement makes me laugh every time.

Uploaded to YouTube in 2015, “Wickedskengman 4” was one in a series of tracks – all self-released – with which Stormzy declared his name and then made his name. And it was to this not-very-distant era that he returned at Glastonbury, opening his headline set with “Know Me From”, a declaration of majesty (“I’m lord of the mic”) that was more for show than for real when he first aired it on tape, early in 2015, during a live stream for the London-based online music channel and club music mainstay Boiler Room. That performance is still on YouTube; there’s no stage, no extravagance to speak of, just Stormzy in a room surrounded by maybe 200 hyped-up fans, crammed shoulder to shoulder, as the mic gets passed between a series of MCs, including the teenage Novelist and the grime grandee Skepta. Grime has always thrived in these combative and utilitarian settings, in which aspirants clash and compete: the first and most legendary grime clash event, Lord of the Mics, got started in 2004, in a domestic basement.

Stormzy toys constantly with this history, bouncing from grime pragmatism to grime theatrics and back again. He’s young enough to have been formed by the genre’s early breakthroughs – Dizzee Rascal winning the Mercury Prize in 2003 for his never-bettered album Boy In Da Corner, for instance – but old enough to have witnessed its unsteady progress. At every prior moment when grime has seemed poised for mainstream takeover, the scene has retreated, and this defensiveness is both its weakness and its strength. The British music industry, in order to appear in touch, has periodically needed grime, but it’s not so clear that grime has ever needed the industry.

The tide may at last be turning, however, and not just for grime but for the profile of black British music more generally. Stormzy, of course, has been a part of this: since hitting the big time it’s been his mission to honour and celebrate the breadth of black British culture. He brought the dance company Ballet Black onstage at Glastonbury, and, at the BRIT Awards this February, he began his 10-minute performance with a gospel choir and ended it with a crowd of dancers, singers and MCs ranged beside him. It wasn’t an awards season shoo-in for Stormzy, either; Album of the Year in 2020 went not to Heavy Is the Head but to Stormzy’s fellow London rapper Dave, for his intense and politically charged album, Psychodrama. Dave’s dallied with grime – his 2016 single with AJ Tracey, “Thiago Silva”, is a contemporary classic of the genre – but hip-hop is his main game. Then there’s the uncompromising grime-punk of Slowthai, the smoother, Afro-pop vibes of J Hus, and assuredness of Little Simz, a woman rapper in a largely male field. “I got a very big ego / Embedded in me that’s the heritage ego,” she rapped on “Selfish”, from last year’s Grey Area. All of these artists are proving, once again, that there’s more to British popular music than guitar bands.

“Long time comin’ but we come to prevail / I guess a little bit of heaven has to come with the hell” Stormzy raps, on “Crown”. Amid the seesawing triumph and doubt that makes up Heavy Is the Head, the album’s most succinct gesture may be its cover photograph, in which Stormzy gazes down upon the Union Jack–emblazoned stab vest he wore onstage at Glastonbury, his expression a blend of solemnity and astonishment. The garment itself, designed by street artist Banksy, brings the reality of knife crime in London, and the racist police profiling that surrounds it, up against a larger, systemic violence – the violence of the British Empire. Stormzy’s own heritage is Ghanaian, from a territory colonised by the British during the 19th century.

When I look at Stormzy looking down at the Union Jack, and all the history his gaze carries with it, I think of the great Jamaican-English dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, though I’d just about fall off my chair should Johnson ever duet, as Stormzy has done, with Ed Sheeran, or appear on The Jonathan Ross Show. Nevertheless, it’s lines from LKJ’s 1978 album Dread Beat an’ Blood that spring to mind – lines that damned British bigotry back when Boris Johnson was still parading around the Eton yard: “Far noh mattah wat dey say / Come wat may / We are here to stay / Inna Inglan”.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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