Wow, this album was long. Long to the point of being difficult, long to the point of having its saggy middle blur into one vast half-trap, half-R&B, oh-yeah-it’s-also-grime mess, God, Gang Signs and Prayer feels as long as this sentence. And yet it only runs 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 TDE’s Jay Rock.
The main problem with this album is something which has befallen good rappers since time immemorial – artistic overstretching. Stormzy’s hype is built on his skills as an MC, so why so much of his debut album is spent trying to get away from that primary talent is beyond me. He’s been blessed with one of those thick, gravelly voices that was made for rapping, 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 it feels more worthy of a side project or EP than his debut studio album. After all, you only get one first impression in the mainstream – and it’s pretty difficult to transition from “Shut Up” to gospel.
Stormzy said…He deserved to be listed next to heavyweights like frank ocean or adele.
Stormzy’s mic skills also worsen the further you get into Gang Signs and Prayer – take “Velvet / Jenny Francis”. He kicks this one 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 first verse 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 just feels pretty lazy for an MC who is so clearly talented, and blurs into a middle which sags hard – the only highlights being “Mr Skeng”, 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.” Stormzy’s an incredible talent and a great artist in his lane, but after hearing Gang Signs and Prayer I reckon the chances of his ever reaching the dizzying artistic highs of Frank Ocean are about the same as Kanye launching the next great search engine.