One of the most ambitious British rap records ever made proclaims the star’s increased creative freedom from the rooftops, but while the highs are higher than on previous records, the lows are lower too
Ever since Stormzy’s first album, his audience has become used to him balancing out hard-hitting rap tracks with slower, R&B-based cuts that may feature sung performances (“man thought that Stormzy couldn’t sing”). It has also been a common assumption that such a balance is part of being a British rapper on a major label – the A&Rs trying to broaden his appeal in a country where 2015’s Shut Up only got in the Top 10 as a Christmas-time joke. But upon the release of Firebabe, it became apparent that whatever level of creative freedom he is granted, Stormzy genuinely wants to sing love songs.
This Is What I Mean corrals its creative cast into one of the most ambitious British rap records ever made, and certainly in the opening section this ambition pays off. Fire + Water moves from low-key verses about a breakup to infectious repeated hooks as the beat dramatically kicks in, its knotty groove moving from funk to something resembling bossa nova. The album’s title track is a welcome flash of the braggadocious style that used to be such a calling card, while the bassy trap beat is home to very able accompaniment from Ms Banks, Amaarae and Black Sherif.
After this point, Stormzy’s penchant for singing starts to eat away at the record’s quality. His baritone is not ugly-sounding, but its range is limited and he can never project with it, thus he is locked in the role of a shy amateur. While this might be endearing in places, by the end of Firebabe and Holy Spirit the effect is grating, the latter not helped by a decidedly tame gospel arrangement, and the tone has shifted from artistic expression to self-indulgence.
Introspection serves the album well on the piano-led Please, as a particularly poignant interrupted bar characterises the song’s lyrics on mental health and fame (“I see his soul, I know it cries, but with this pain I’d rather- / with this pain I’d rather paint / and try to turn this broken picture into something that it ain’t”) as his trusty team of backing vocalists ascend with the crunchy chord sequence underneath. Sampha’s Plea is something of a reprise and gradually modulates the theme to that of a rocky relationship, the Mercury Prize-winner’s vocals ringing out powerfully, and together the tracks form a highlight of the record.
Hide & Seek is a gentle, pleasant lead single, with an afrobeats rhythm and melodious hook from Oxlade ensuring the track’s appeal even if Stormzy’s verses are somewhat pedestrian. It’s actually the preceding afrobeats-style track Need You that allows for more cheeky, flirtatious rapping and a stronger impression, chunky bass underneath shimmying, sensual percussion. Meanwhile My Presidents Are Black sports a homely chipmunk-soul loop as Stormzy contemplates his beef with Wiley that, taking place as it did before the coronavirus pandemic, feels like ancient history now (“a wise man once asked ‘who ate all the pies’ / and now he’s looking at me funny like I took his slice”).
While there’s nothing wrong with the Debbie-led Give It To The Water per se, I Got My Smile Back feels more like an outro track as its first verse outlines both triumph and determination for achievements still to come, and the tried-and-tested technique of personifying emotions leads to a stirring second verse. It’s one of several moments on This Is What I Mean where the emotional depth is striking, and if the album spent more time doing what it’s good at we would have a classic on the level that Stormzy seems to be aiming for.