Thursday, March 16, 2017

album review: 'gang signs & prayer' by stormzy

I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I contended with this subgenre of hip-hop. And while I'm not going to say I was avoiding it, I will say I was hesitant to approach, mostly because I wasn't really sure what to expect and I knew immediately that those more familiar with the genre were going to inundate me with more suggestions the second I stepped in than I would know what to do with.

Yep, folks, let's talk about grime, the UK-based brand of hip-hop partially derived of a combination of UK garage, jungle, breakbeats, and elements of dancehall - a mutation more than specific subgenre, also pulling on elements of rough-edged gangsta rap in its aggression and depictions of urban decay. Now I've recognized grime names for a while - Dizzie Rascal, Skepta and Wiley spring to mind the most - but I hadn't really heard a lot of crossover until I started tracking the UK Official Charts a couple years ago. And given that hints of tropical rhythms starting landing in North America across last year, it was only a matter of time before some acts began importing their sound overseas, or at least picking up consistent traction in the mainstream in the UK. And one of the names that I've seen peppering the UK charts was Stormzy, who was looking to blend in more R&B sounds with grime's typical brand of aggression for the obvious mainstream crossover. And thus far he's gotten significant traction - hell, put aside the tide of people wanting me to cover this on Patreon, he broke into the top ten in the UK with 'Shut Up' and his remix of Ed Sheeran's 'Shape Of You' is doing particularly well. So okay, for someone looking for a beginner's step into this genre like the majority of people on this side of the ocean, I had to hope Gang Signs & Prayer might be a good introduction, right?

So here's the frustrating thing: I didn't really find a lot to love about this project, but the larger question of my opinions on grime can't really fall on that basis. For one, I've heard assertions that this is Stormzy's chance to present this style to a mainstream audience, less of a primer on the genre and more watered-down, a softer take to not alienate new listeners. And from a marketing standpoint I get that, but when I consider a broader picture of the aggressive hip-hop I like and then compare this - which is valid, considering how much of the tropes and sounds are shared across genres - Gang Signs & Prayer doesn't measure up for me, including some baffling artistic choices that even further muffle what could have been a driving artistic statement. Unless, of course, this was all the project that Stormzy wanted to produce instead of a major label pushing him towards a softer sound... and he honestly doesn't come out better if that's the case.

And I want to start with the production and instrumentation, the area where I expecting the most to differentiate this sort of grime from mainstream hip-hop... and while I'm not going to say I can't hear differences, I am going to say I'm not exactly thrilled by what I've gotten. For one, there are a fair few aggressive tracks where we do get more pronounced, sharper breakbeats that play at a quicker tempo, but it's not like they're doing much that your standard hi-hat setup doesn't already do. And even though I'm not the biggest fan of most modern Metro Boomin beats, I can tell when the pickups actually have depth or body, and most of what Stormzy's producers give him have a fair amount of bombast in the synth tones and full strings sections, but not exactly a fleshed out sound in the low-end. Which would be fine - I don't need every beat to blow out my subwoofer, but it lends many of these tracks a chilly thinness that can slightly undercut the bombast, especially when you're not getting the same texture or bite from your production. Oh, there are some beats that have some muscle - the stormclouds and keys that open 'First Things First' are a strong start, along with the horns against the synth on 'Cold' and especially the darker smolder of 'Bad Boys', this album does start strong, and when you get tracks like 'Mr. Skeng' which can bring more of that thicker bombast, I'm on board, it matches a lot of Stormzy's intensity. But go past these songs and you start noticing consistent production issues, like the godawful chipmunk vocal samples that set my teeth on edge on track after track, or that electric guitar on the outright gospel cut 'Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 2' with MNEK, which didn't nearly modulate enough to have impact for me. And that's before we get into a lot more R&B and gospel-related cuts than I expected, with muted organ-like keys and horns and some 90s-inspired hooks with added autotune that I really don't think is a flattering fit for their delivery, to say nothing of the gang vocals that shouldn't be there. And when you factor in Stormzy's tendencies to let song run a good minute longer than they should, it can lead to a project that's spreading itself thin. And that's definitely not helped by the sequencing - I get that it's not a good idea to leave all of your sentimental, R&B-esque songs for the end, but there's a lot of tonal whiplash on this project, with the entire last third that should have been shuffled into the rest of the project better. 

And I think part of this does fall on Stormzy as a performer, because while I saw his justification for his weaker singing, given that it should be the sincerity of the delivery that matters, greater vocal talent often allows you to convey that sincerity better. Because he's not an impressive singer - and if I'm being brutally honest, I'm not all that impressed with him as a rapper either. Yes, he's got flows and intensity and some charisma when he gets hyped... but on a structural basis, he's rhyming a lot of words with themselves or outright flubbing rhymes, and his thicker accent can only obscure so much of that. That's not saying he's a bad MC, I've certainly heard worse, but he does have a more intense lane that I think better suits his delivery, and this record spends more time than it should outside of that lane. And this can make some of his guest choices a little questionable. I get bringing on grime veterans like Crazy Titch and Ghetts and Wretch 32 for hooks or verses or shoutouts, and that works for what it is, but on the more R&B-inspired songs I'm not quite as sold. Yes, MNEK sounds great, but if you already got Kehlani on 'Cigarettes & Kush', why bother getting Lily Allen too, especially if she doesn't get a credit - she wasn't adding anything more to that overlong hook that Kehlani couldn't have done herself!

But okay, what about content? Okay, if we put aside the frustrating sequencing and get to the meat of who Stormzy is, he cuts an interesting figure. He freely admits he's not really a gangsta and indeed shows a fair bit more vulnerability and emotion on songs like '21 Gun Salute', 'Don't Cry For Me' and especially 'Lay Me Bare', even as he spits some extremely aggressive bars and shows his affiliation with nastier guys. It's not a bad way to approach the 'thug with a conscience' angle - it at least feels honest - and when you factor in his willingness to include God in these conversations you get a distinct artist, at least. Hell, one of the reasons that I don't like that 'Lay Me Bare' was used as the final song was that it actually touches on losses of friends and faith and the re-entry of his father into his life and undercurrents of depression that could have set the scene of the album pretty well, instead of just feeling like the bookend to a much more interesting story. But that's also important to note, because even in his punchlines I'm not exactly blown away - they feel a little bare-bones, lacking in truly cutting detail, and I definitely get the feeling that Stormzy relies on pointing to his chart success and popularity and namechecking a lot more than he should. But normally if the intensity is there I can get sucked into the aggressive songs... when we go to the R&B-inspired tracks things get dicey. For one, the hookup sketched on 'Velvet/Jenny Francis (Interlude)' really does not paint Stormzy in a good light, particularly the macho posturing at the end of the first verse, and 'Cigarettes and Kush', it's a track about a harried relationship where right after Kehlani's verse reasserting the girl's loyalty, Stormzy gets dumped anyway with no explanation, it's a weird choice. But where I think this album has the most meat is the relationship Stormzy has to his friends back home, because he's very much trying to walk the balance between slapping those grabbing onto his fame and holding a connection to his neighborhood, and while I'm not sure he totally gets there, it at least felt a little more fleshed out.

But then it hit me - the machismo trying to balance against sensitive crooning, the religion that bleeds into a borderline martyr complex, stronger rapping than singing and yet an insistence on doing softer songs anyway that'll probably lead to the pop crossover success that he clearly wants... am I the only one who sees a new Ja Rule here? Sure, the English accent is very different than the gravelly Cookie Monster voice, but I see a lot of the same patterns - and if I'm being bluntly honest, I've never really been all that enamored with that sensitive thug dichotomy. As such, while I would not call this bad, I would say it's a debut that needed a lot of editing and focus to really come together, and as it is it's decent at best, netting a light 6/10 from me. I completely get why Stormzy is popular in the same way Ja Rule was fifteen years ago, but at the same time, for the hip-hop I like, I'm not really going to seek him out. Check him out if you're curious, and as for the rest of grime... eh, if it comes up on my schedule, we'll see.

No comments:

Post a Comment