tue 07/02/2023

Album: Stormzy - This Is What I Mean | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Stormzy - This Is What I Mean

Album: Stormzy - This Is What I Mean

Heartbreak and hope: the rapper, singer songwriter bares his soul on his third album

"The most public open letter in recent memory"

“All of this music, it’s nothing to do with the listener,” Stormzy announced to Louis Theroux in a recent TV interview. “All I can do is feel what I feel and document that, and whatever that is, that’s what it’s going to be.”

The 29-year-old rapper singer and songwriter, also known as Michael Omari, was talking about This Is What I Mean, his third album and, by some distance, the biggest departure, both musically and lyrically, since his incredible rise from the UK’s underground grime scene to stadium-filling stardom.

The conversation comes after listening to a, then unfinished, version of “Fire + Water”, the opening track on the new collection. Alongside the wide-open chords and a low-key jazz cloak, the overwhelming sense is one of simplicity. It’s not the first time we’ve heard Stormzy sing, of course, but it’s probably the first time it’s felt quite so central a concern. Understated and delicate, he places the notes with careful consideration. There are no runs, no trills, no acrobatics, just a man playing to his strengths and the emotional core of the song. 

Of course, given the extent to which Stormzy’s private life is seemingly public domain, the object of such heartbreak balladry is always going to be a talking point. In fairness, the rapper isn’t being coy – his heart is on his sleeve here in more ways than one. The album cover shows a handwritten envelope on a doorstep, the most public open letter in recent memory.

“Bad Blood” continues the break-up theme, with washes of synth and measured percussion carrying the whole. However sad, Stormzy’s conclusion is that love trumps loss every time, “But when you love that much it’s never love lost,” he reasons.

And that positivity carries throughout. Musically, “I Got My Smile Back” feels like a distant cousin of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”. Lush backing vocals recline on a bed of bass, while the lyrics speak to moving on, moving up and leaving the past in the past: “Me and suicidal thoughts, we haven't spoke for years,” Stormzy tells us in a confession that's both uncomfortable and reassuring.

Like his vocal delivery, the key to these songs’ success lies in their execution. Album closer “Give It to the Water”, sees Stormzy hand over the reins to 22-year-old singer Debbie Ehirim, whose beautifully phrased, economical delivery is perfectly suited to elevate the song from premier-league pop to something distinctly spiritual.

Similarly, R&B vocalist Tendai’s appearance on the jazzy, afro-beat influenced “Need You”, amplifies the track’s many strengths – smooth, subtle, soulful, beautiful... Which rather brings us back to where we started. 

“The mission for this album was so clear,” continues Stormzy, ensconced in his studio. “Let’s just make the most beautiful… an album that just makes you feel… we gotta just hit them in the heartstrings.”

Mission accomplished.

@jahshabby

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