Stormzy Delivers a Relentless UK Grime Flurry on ‘Heavy Is the Head’
There are few figures who deserve more credit for bringing the relatively provincial style of UK Grime to a wider audience than perennially outspoken emcee Stormzy. Making a name for himself with his “Wicked Skengman” series of freestyles over classic grime beats, the rapper made history with his debut album, 2017’s “Gang Signs & Prayers,” becoming the first grime release to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart. He performed at last year’s Glastonbury Festival adorned in a Union Jack stab vest designed by legendary street artist Banksy, calling attention to the country’s knife crime epidemic, and leading the crowd in a chant of “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.” With conservative leader Boris Johnon having secured his seat as prime minister of an undeniably divided country in a landslide victory just today, dissident voices like Stormzy’s are more crucial than ever, and the timely release of his followup “Heavy Is the Head” shows the rapper as bold and brash as ever.
“Big Michael” opens the album in triumphant style, with Stormy announcing his entry over grand burst of brass, stopping and starting, teasing for a few bars, and then letting loose in a flurry of fiery spitting that he keeps up for the album’s nearly hour-long duration. He grows even more worked up on “Audacity,” over ominous synth strings and a sharp, clasping beat, with rapid exchanges back and forth with fellow UK rapper Headie One. “Crown,” the song whose lyrics gives the album its title, finds Stormzy grappling with fame, coming out troubled but resolute and fearless. The first of several songs featuring a sung hook from Stormzy, it finds the rapper stepping outside his usual parameters. Next comes “Rainfall,” with a razor-sharp garage beat. The vindictive refrain of “Let the rain fall on my enemies,” asserted with gleeful gusto, makes for a slightly awkward chorus, reaching ludicrous heights when guest singer Tiana Major9 chimes in with full gospel histrionics. At any rate, one has to appreciate Stormzy’s relentlessness.
“Rachael’s Little Brother” is a reflective number, full of shout outs and claims to fame. Stormzy sings again, getting a bit soft and sappy again at the end, and the saccharine sound is not the most becoming. It’s only moments, however, before Sotrmzy bounces back with full force. Off-kilter backwards music adds some edge to “Handsome,” a prompt return to no-nonsense beats and rhymes. Ever the positive, conscious rapper, Stormzy continues with “Do Better,” preaching the titular gospel alongside pitched-up samples of empowering “Oh yeahs,” and string layers that pile atop one another in a motivational soundscape. On “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” Stormzy’s flat, off-key singing gets a bit much, and one has to ask why he doesn’t stick to what he’s far better at, as there’s not enough profundity to the lyrics to excuse the rather unpalatable sound. Still, there’s a certain charm, with moments recalling some of Mos Def’s whimsical jazzy detours, and singing from YEBBA balancing out Stormzy’s rougher contributions. “One Second” emerges from the warm, jazzy ambiance, and features a standout appearance from H.E.R., who outshines all other guest features on the album. The track has the sound of an instant classic, gold for crate-digging hip-hop heads.
Stormzy picks up the pace on “Pop Boy,” fresh and animated, spitting with clockwork precision. Guest rapper Aitch matches his relentless rhythm, with his more laidback delivery and Mancunian drawl proving an effective foil. “Own It,” a song of confidence and empowerment, marks Stormzy’s third collaboration with Ed Sheeran, and features mellifluous melodies from Nigerian artist Burna Boy over a bouncy beat of stuttering snares. Sheeran couldn’t sound more in his element, cramming enough personality into his short verse to add a whole new dimension. “Wiley Flow” hits hard, showing Stormzy rapping with even more edge and verve than usual. There’s a midsong bit when the percussion drops out except for frenetic high hats, and Stormzy keeps at it with such frenzy that the beat returns as a jolting shocker. Stormzy truly never seems to tire. Nor does he ever run out of novel expressions of bragaddocio, as best illustrated on “Bronze,” where he taunts, “You, man, are getting bronze this year,” along with playful banter that gives the feel of freestyle spontaneity.
A litany of references to illustrious black figures follows in “Superheroes,” with Stormzy naming such disparate names as Nina Simone and Serena Williams, quoting “women can be kings” from fellow UK rapper Lil Simz’s song “Persons,” and giving special attention to British author Malorie Blackman, whose autobiography he will be publishing on his own imprint “#Merky Books.” “Lessons” places Stormzy over a mellow backdrop of jazzy chords, where he reminisces about an ex-girlfriend, with a reflective flow in the tradition of heartfelt hip-hop classics like The Roots’ “You Got Me.” Finally, “Vossi Bop” brings the album to its intense culmination. Named after a viral dance move that adopted a slang term for Courvoisier cognac in its moniker, the track is more incisive in its sound than anything else on the album, with Stormzy rapping over a piercing minor piano figure and stuttering, syncopated drums that bring out the edge in his voice. He keeps at it, hardcore and relentless, until he’s said all he needs to say, then ends abruptly.
“Heavy Is the Head” will be a treat for fans of undiluted hip-hop. There’s scant filler and filigree, little more than beats and rhymes from start to finish. Lyrically, Stormzy offers more of what he has always delivered – regular rap bombast, social consciousness, uplifting anecdotes, Afrocentric affirmations. Along with this comes an unprecedented emphasis on the weight of fame, with Stormzy making it clear that haters only fuel his fire. For how defining of a voice Stormzy is in the genre of grime, the album somewhat undersells the style, with sonics that are closer to traditional hip-hop than some of the UK’s wilder, more insular sounds. This allows for increased accessibility, which works well, as even the album’s singles are relatively uncommercial, with enough immediate appeal to Stormzy’s voice and energy to get by without excessive hooks and elaborate production. Stormzy knows what his fans have come to expect, and he delivers.
“Heavy Is the Head” is available Dec. 13 on Apple Music.