Stormzy – This Is What I Mean

After breaking from his beginnings in UK Grime by infusing a little more soul into the acclaimed 2019 project Heavy Is The Head, British rapper Stormzy has set out to defy expectations even more with his latest, This Is What I Mean. In fact, tracks where Stormzy raps at all are the minority on this set of twelve. With collaborators like Sampha, India Arie and Jacob Collier along for the ride, things shift even further into the category of prestigious-sounding traditional R&B and borderline gospel, especially as Stormzy often returns to themes surrounding his faith – as well as an overarching contrast between fire and water. While it’s an admirable leap, it doesn’t always seem like it’s really Stormzy’s thing, remaining in his deep lower register and leaving this listener longing for the energy he’s so capable of bringing. Still, with the more personal narratives across the board here, a couple of these tracks do end up being quite touching.

Most people pressing play on this album likely assume that opening track “Fire + Water” is the album’s emotional, 8-minute opener before the bangers start hitting, but it’s essentially the sound of most of the album. With slow-moving but warm chords and soulful vocals, Stormzy introduces the album’s main themes while describing the two complementary sides of the excellent love he’s found – the fiery passion, and the cleansing aspect that he compares to holy water. Stormzy does drop some speedy rap verses on the song celebrating this love, but he does it at a near-whisper. As the guitar solos and flute embellishments start to drown him out during the 2nd verse as the song builds up to a more instrumentally involved place, it reveals itself as a truly respectable artistic statement – though one that’s not incredibly engaging from a musical standpoint. Another final shift takes things to a place that almost sounds like African gospel with its percussion, which sounds great until you realize a pitched-up Jacob Collier is singing the main melody. “This Is What I Mean” follows it up with another lengthy track, and it’s the only truly hard-hitting song here as a trap beat and distorted bass kicks in. While Stormzy’s calmer state of mind on the project has him starting out not matching the energy, he builds up steam as the track goes on while offering some creative bars nodding to some fellow British superstars. Ms Banks, Amaarae and Ghanaian rapper Black Sherif all appear, doing well to diversify the sound.

While it’s more of a detriment later on, the tender love song “Firebabe” is where Stormzy’s more subdued vocal approach works the best. Singing about a kind of love-at-first-sight feeling, he describes being overcome with gratitude and emotion upon seeing his partner all dressed up at a social function. By not oversinging and remaining in a place where it almost seems like he’s so in awe that he forgets he’s giving a performance, it truly sounds like Stormzy is in utter disbelief at his luck landing someone so special – he sounds overwhelmingly thankful and happy, while the central melody is delicate and soulful. “Please” turns into a returning motif for the album, as Stormzy drops another slam poetry-esque verse asking the divine for strength as the pleading gospel-tinged mantra echoes behind him. The back-to-back tracks “Need You” and “Hide & Seek” drop into Afrobeats territory with varying degrees of success. Stormzy himself has said that if he heard the former, he’d think someone else made it. Recruiting young London singer tendai, the shuffling percussion and halfhearted performances make it sound like a focus-grouped, watered-down trend-hopping track – Stormzy’s near-whisper flow hits a new level as he starts mumbling and sounding like he’s falling asleep. “Hide & Seek,” however, brings Tems on board for a co-writing credit and picks up the energy with some trap elements, a nice bassline, and some catchy melodic elements carried by a crew of Nigerian vocalists.

For all of the new energy that Stormzy endeavours to bring on this new project, the best marriage of the new sounds and his strengths as an artist comes on the song “My Presidents Are Black” – the presidents he refers to being the twin brothers in charge of his label, Def Jam UK. Bringing energetic flows and meaningful lyrics to a beat that settles into the same kind of pleasant, calming space of the rest of the album without needing to jump out at you, it’s the track where he makes it easiest to want to listen to and digest his every word. With some bars about fostering unification instead of competition amongst the Black community and celebrating any kind of successes where they can get them, Stormzy nods to some prominent Black voices of the past, present and future before the track culminates in some belted soul notes and saxes. “Please” returns in the form of “Sampha’s Plea,” and while Sampha’s vocals are always a welcome surprise, it was a bit of an odd choice on the album to turn into a reprise as it’s one of the more boring melodies here. It’s not the greatest showcase for Sampha’s voice, though he takes over the whole song and adds a couple new verses hoping things will go his way. It leads into “Holy Spirit,” a fully religious track that sees Stormzy affirming his faith over some emotional pianos and strings – it’s nice to hear, but he’s not a great singer, and it goes on for far too long.

The track “Bad Blood” settles into a similar vibe as what made “My Presidents Are Black” so successful, hitting a sweet spot between more involved vocals and a calming instrumental. Stormzy goes into detail about an interesting concept, touching on remaining civil and still showing love to a relationship that drifted apart with a pretty poignant central line – “when you had it that good, it’s never bad blood.” With some pitched soul samples in the back, the whole track just gives off a nice, wholesome energy. The final two tracks find Stormzy getting a little religious once more. “I Got My Smile Back” coasts on some gospel choirs once again while Stormzy’s performance doesn’t bring much new to the table – though the hook from India Arie sounds heavenly – while “Give It To The Water” is mostly a track by relative unknown Debbie Ehirim, who sounds equally nice but offers a pretty basic melody while Jacob Collier does some vocal layering in the back, making things needlessly complex for the sake of it as usual.

There’s a lot to appreciate on this project, and Stormzy continues to prove himself as a lot more than the grimy one-trick pony many perceived him as earlier on in his career. With such willingness to experiment, even if it doesn’t connect fully like on this project, something really interesting might be coming down the line.

Favourite Tracks: My Presidents Are Black, Firebabe, Bad Blood, This Is What I Mean

Least Favourite Track: Need You

Score: 6/10

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