Wow, this album was long. Long to the point of being difficult, long to the point of having its saggy middle blur into one half-trap, half-R&B, oh-yeah-it’s-also-grime mess, Gang Signs and Prayer feels as long as this sentence. And yet it only lasts fifty-eight minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, this review’s not a hatchet job – Stormzy’s a talented guy. When he wants to, he can absolutely snap on verses. Check “Big For Your Boots”, “Return of the Rucksack”, “Mr Skeng”, or the album-opening one-two punch that is “First Things First” into “Cold” and you’re confronted by an MC who deserves to be at the forefront of the trap/grime fusion that’s been gaining momentum in the mainstream lately; his bars are direct, hard, and nuanced in a way that makes Stormzy look like the UK’s answer to Jay Rock or pre-addiction DMX.
The main problem with this album is something which has befallen good rappers since time immemorial – artistic overstretching. Stormzy’s hype is built on being good at rapping, so why so much of his debut album is spent trying to get away from his main talent is beyond me. He’s been blessed with one of those thick, gravelly voices that was made for rapping (also known as the “reverse Devilman”), but the problem with that sound is it really doesn’t transfer well to the subpar gospel he keeps gesturing vaguely towards on tracks like “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1”. It’s nice that he’s bold enough to experiment, but the debut album isn’t really the place to do that since it’s really a make-or-break deal for his career.
Stormzy said…He deserved to be listed next to heavyweights like frank ocean or adele.
The actual rap on the album also declines in quality the further you get into Gang Signs and Prayer – take “Velvet / Jenny Francis”. This one kicks off with a slow, emotional flow, which would be fine if his writing was up to scratch. As it is, lines which crackle with energy and wit at 140 beats per minute feel prosaic and lifeless. Even worse, the track then segues into a pre-hook which sounds almost identical to the vastly better “Rich $ex” from Future’s 2015 album DS2. (Seriously, listen to that song before “Velvet / Jenny Francis”. This can’t be a coincidence, can it?) It feels pretty lazy, and blurs into a middle which sags hard – the only highlights being “Mr Skeng”, which is one of the uptempo flexes that Stormzy excels at, and “Cigarettes and Cush”, which is basically just a Kehlani song with a Stormzy feature.
In a promotional interview with the Guardian for the album, Stormzy said that with Gang Signs and Prayer he deserved to be listed next to heavyweights like Frank Ocean or Adele. Having now heard the hype deflate, I’ve got to say I’m reminded of Kanye West’s 2013 declaration that “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation, in the flesh. I am Shakespeare, Walt Disney. Nike. Google.” After hearing Gang Signs and Prayer, I reckon that the chances of Stormzy achieving the dizzying artistic highs of Frank Ocean are about the same as Kanye West literally transforming into Google.