Through a combination of talent and luck, Stormzy has become one of the most high-profile UK acts of the decade: he became grime’s next big thing just as grime became the next big thing. The resulting spectacle has thrown up a few interesting firsts – for example, him and Maya Jama becoming the first UK urban power couple – and sophomore release Heavy Is The Head focuses on the trials and tribulations of fame, the Last Supper imagery of Gang Signs & Prayer’s album cover replaced with the rapper in isolation.
As much as he is trumpeted as home-grown talent, there are a fair few American influences seeping in here. Producers such as T-Minus, Fred Gibson and !llmind lend their talents from across the Atlantic, while Stormzy’s verses dip into flows from Rick Ross, Drake and Ludacris at various points. And, as has already been seen on his previous LP, he has a craving for syrupy soul that comes from a very different world to traditional grime.
The album kicks off with the grime horns of Big Michael, with unlikely one-liners (“Can’t tell where I’m heading / Could be Glasto, could be Reading / I was on the field like Beding”) coalescing into a rapid fire climax. Audacity is a foray into drill, the up-and-coming new subgenre of UK rap music, and its spooky synth pads coupled with Headie One’s guest verse go down very well indeed. Handsome also finds Stormzy on energetic form, rattling through the relatively brief track with braggadocio and plenty of swipes at foes, while Pop Boy shakes and shimmies like an early-2000s Jay-Z track.
The biggest problem here is the same as with Gang Signs & Prayer, in that the balance between uptempo and downtempo songs is skewed too much towards the latter. In the mid-section between Rachael’s Little Brother and One Second there is a sizeable glut of more contemplative, mellow tunes, which aren’t egregious on their own but cloy by the time the section is over. Stormzy is not as interesting a rapper in this mode, and while Heavy Is The Head’s offerings are more accomplished than what came before, they still fail to ignite as much interest as tracks like Audacity or Pop Boy.
Rainfall is a particular album highlight, stylish and maximalist moombahton production leading up to a catchy hook (“let the rain fall on my enemies / all of my enemies”), an interpolation of Mary Mary’s Shackles (Praise You) the icing on the cake. Elsewhere, Own It is perfectly fine as a tune, but Ed Sheeran is still an unconvincing lothario and a thousand Shape Of You reduxes won’t change that. The album rounds off with two more of the slower tracks, one sampling the Tracy Beaker theme music and one about his breakup with Maya Jama, before Vossi Bop’s subterranean bass comes in as a de facto bonus track.
Crown may well be the shining example of how to do introspection right: a low-key earworm courtesy of Jimmy Napes, a swinging beat that provides a sober mood but also a groove to work with, and lyrics that don’t sacrifice Stormzy’s wit. Add a choir to the mix and it’s a winning single, and if Heavy Is The Head had had more of these moments then it would have been a decisive step forward. As it is, the fondness for schmaltz gets a bit overwhelming, and the album is only great in patches.