Rapping superstar Drake is just the latest prominent figure to become obsessed with the UK genre of grime — a sort of rough-hewn off-shoot of hip hop. During his recent run of shows in London, the chart-topping rhymer invited leading purveyors Section Boyz and Giggs up for collaborations — though these cameos were arguably overshadowed by an accident in which support act Travis Scott fell down a hole on stage.
Drake’s imprimatur has prompted claims that grime’s ‘moment’ is finally at hand. Of course, we’ve been here before, with Dizzee Rascal in the 2000s and just last year when Skepta claimed the Mercury Music Prize (only to be controversially overlooked at this week’s Brits).
However, if any artist is placed to transition from the London hip hop underground to the mainstream it is 23-year-old Croydon native Michael Omari. As Stormzy he has moved briskly and confidently beyond grime’s low-fidelity roots and his debut album is an astonishingly polished statement of intent.
What’s especially remarkable is that Stormzy has made his sound palatable to a mass audience without stooping to shameless pandering. Gang Signs and Prayer is in places polished but elsewhere raw-boned and vitriolic (nightclub bouncers beware — if you deny Stormzy entry he will have his revenge in song form).
The best moments blend the populist and experimental. ‘First Things First’ evokes the outlaw spirit on the 1990s drum’n’bass scene even as Stormzy places a big cheesy chorus on top; ‘Cold’ features a Prodigy-esque rave bass, against which Stormzy delivers pummelling lines.
If there’s a flaw it’s that Stormzy — a celebrity all of 15 seconds — has already embraced the cliche of the put-upon A-lister. Fame is a burden he complains on ‘Bad Boys’ while on ‘Big For Your Boots’ he witheringly addresses acquaintances who claim all the attention has gone to his head.
Such bursts of pique have a great deal in common with Drake, who likewise enjoys a proper whinge. The similarities don’t end there — as with Drake, Stormzy’s has a supple singing voice, on depressive display on the stripped-down ‘Blinded By Your Grace, Part 1’.
There was surprise when Stormzy recently sold out Dublin’s Olympia in a heartbeat. Few in the mainstream had heard of the rapper and bafflement was expressed as tickets started trading on the secondary market for upwards of €100. The good news for fans is that, on the evidence of Gang Signs and Prayer, Stormzy will soon be playing far larger venues. Say hello to British urban music’s latest superstar.
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