Reviewed by Andrew Midgley
Stormzy's explosive, much-hyped debut album has the most first-week streams for a number one in chart history at just shy of 14 million; it was the first grime album to top the national charts with sales of over 69,000. Humorous and self-depreciating lyrically ("I was in the O2 singing my lungs out/Rudeboy, you're never too big for Adele") it is Michael Omari's energetic, capering delivery that truly engages on the best tracks here, and while the video for "Shut Up" - a visual synecdoche of this album - appears intimidating and confrontational, it is abundantly clear that Stormzy and his posse are having fun. All their blustering braggadocio is given and received with irony, all the deliberately obscure references - and liberal expletives - are verbal graffiti of memories and ingroup identifiers; a catechism of gang signs.
What of the prayer? Before the end of the first track Omari has laid out gang betrayal, family breakdown and depression as battles he has fought. Later, he will give credit to God for unspecified helpful interventions - on "Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2", he and guest vocalist MNEK sing, "Lord I've been broken/Although I'm not worthy you fixed me/Now I'm blinded by your grace." The conception of salvation on 'Gang Signs & Prayer', though, seems driven by prosperity doctrine and therapeutic deism, finding little place for active discipleship unless others' peccadilloes are in the sights: "You know I'm a different person," Stormzy raps on "21 Gun Salute", "but Lord why do they test my patience?" It sounds almost Pharisaic, and other disclosures on the same song breeze over his desire for revenge on his enemies, and smoking weed; all apparently oblivious to both Romans 12:19 and 1 Corinthians 6:19.
Furthermore, one of the perks of Stormzy's dizzying rise to fame is, he says, that "Now the pengtings wanna do the sex on me" ("Return Of The Rucksack"). While there may be a curious warmth to Omari's love life stories - despite the haze of marijuana around "Cigarettes And Cush" ("I'll still pass the bong to you"), it shows emotional, rather than merely sexual, attachment - this is somewhat scraping the barrel as a defence of Omari's moral calibre, and by the time he describes "pengtings shaking their tic-tacs", he has pitched himself even further into ethical obsolescence. For someone making a confession of faith, this is not "fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8).
So: swearing? Check. Misogyny? Check. Yet Omari might gain more sympathy when his background is considered. His deepest wounds, inflicted by his father's abandonment, are alluded to on "100 Bags" ("Where I come from's bad/Same old s***, just mums, no dads"), and given an entire track on album closer "Lay Me Bare", where a well of poisonous resentment fuels the stream of anger and unforgiveness. The hurt and sorrow is palpable, and the only hope of redemption is, as before, the respect Omari has for his mother. To his father, meanwhile, he charges: "When you hear this I hope you feel ashamed/Cah' we were broke like 'what the f***?'/Mum did well to hold us up/But yet she still forgave your arse/ . F*** that! I'm still not over this."
Musically, 'Gang Signs & Prayer' is hugely compelling: witty, fun and dynamic, with hooks to savour as well as themes to explore. Spiritually, the two life-constants from the album's title are still unequal partners. The absence of a father - obviously a huge source of spiritual disaffection - is a prime contributor to this, playing out in Omari's brittle grasp of what it means truly to follow Christ. The album's chief virtue, however, is its author's vulnerability - behind the rat-a-tat flow and hashtag banter is a simple heart longing for a Lord seen now only through a glass darkly. But God can redeem even the fatherless, and praying mothers can compete with gang signs, as St Augustine's 'Confessions' illustrate. Mrs Omari's prayer is doubtless for her son to see the same God she sees: who not only enabled her to forgive her feeble husband, but who is capable of calming the Stormzy.
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