The dark, last supper-esque cover art of Stormzy’s debut album, coupled with the reference to gangs in its title, instantly had commentators decrying yet another grime artist “glamorising” street crime and gang life in London. But one listen through would be enough to reveal this album as being far from that.
Stormzy takes us on a journey through the layers of his soul, from cutting down pretend “badmen” in “Bad Boys”, to the tender love ballad “Cigarettes and Kush”; from expressing the trauma of violence in “21 Gun Salute” to the pain of having an absent father in “Return of the Rucksack”; the adoration of his mother in “100 Bags” and the infinity of his faith in “Blinded by your Grace”. The project is an exploration of humanity with a complexity that is not often afforded to young black youths in urban London.
One of the salient aspects of the album is that it is entirely independently produced. Despite being unsigned, with no label backing, Gang Signs and Prayer reached Number 1 in the UK charts — an incredible feat. Stormzy speaks about being just a guy from “the ends”, who discovered his shine and rose to claim it. He runs his own label, #MERKY, is managed by one of his best friends, and his whole team is made up not of industry experts in the conventional sense, but rather experts in their own right — people who live and breathe the art they create.
In “First Things First” Stormzy calls out infamous nightclubs for their anti-black discrimination. The entire album highlights the importance of building outside of infrastructures and systems that were not designed to elevate young men from places like Thornton Heath — the south London housing estate where he lives.
The night the album dropped, I sat on Twitter and almost cried — you could feel its power resonating. Black London, and the whole country, was alive and celebrating Stormzy the golden boy. That week there was a massive drive to buy, stream and share the album to get it to Number 1, because Stormzy hitting the top of the charts meant so much more than just a successful album — Stormzy winning was all of us winning, and on our own terms.
Gang Signs and Prayer is not about glorifying gangs; it’s about glorifying black boys and girls and communities. It’s about glorifying the multiple dimensions of black youth that are so often denied and downplayed. It’s about romanticising our own stories and sharing our struggles.
Gang Signs and Prayer is an album to dance to, and nod to, and cry to. If it has a message it is when he says, “All my young black kings rise up/ Man this is our year/ And my young black queens right there/ It’s been a long time coming I swear”.