2017 Electronic music retrospective: “Gang Signs & Prayer” by Stormzy

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Grime, as a genre, has never been more stylistically versatile than it is now. Artists both young and seasoned have an unprecedented inclination to expand the sonic palette of grime to heights previously unheard of. These innovations take place at the fringes of what is normally thought of as a genre of dance music, incorporating the mechanical and the ethereal into the dance-centric until it has deviated from the genre’s origin into what some publications and journalists have been labelling as an entirely new genre, (Grime 2.0 and Grime New Wave, among others, have been suggested as names, but nothing has seemed to stick yet). A major aspect of this innovation often involves eliminating the emcee, a traditionally essential aspect of grime music, to focus entirely on the production end.

Rapping was once thought to be essential to grime as it is to most hip-hop. In an age where the grime emcee may be viewed by some of the most up-and-coming producers as being antithetical to further innovation, Grime veteran Stormzy, on his 2017 album “Gang Signs & Prayer,” examined the emcee’s function within grime, approaching grime lyricism from new perspectives, and perhaps adding just as much to modern innovations in grime as any number of young sonically daring producers, albeit in a manner far more subtle.

 

Stormzy has again placed the emcee at the grime center-stage, but this time he’s embracing that role in a way notably different from the bulk of the rappers who reside in grime’s upper echelons. While there is certainly a history of grime emcees expanding beyond the standard lyrical themes of aggressive braggadocio and streetwise battle-raps, examinations of the self tend to be fleeting. Stormzy is well aware of his efforts to subvert this, early on declaring “you was fighting with your girl when I was fighting my depression,” among other statements removed from the “hardcore” persona other emcees, including Stormzy himself, have often cultivated in the past.

 

Stormzy as a lyricist remains “Gang Signs & Prayer’s” highlight, but the producers with whom Stormzy has surrounded himself for the album do an excellent job both as producers in-and-of-themselves and as artisans making a perfect backdrop to better highlight Stormzy’s work as an emcee. Most heavily featured on the production team for “Gang Signs & Prayer” is Buckinghamshire native Fraser T Smith, who received much industry notoriety for being a collaborating producer on Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.”

Smith quickly proved himself as proficient producer within the pop realm, but his favored genre still remains grime, and he’s never felt more at home within that paradigm than on almost every track of “Gang Signs & Prayer,” effortlessly blending an assortment of genres from American hip-hop and r&b into the perfect grime package for Stormzy to perform at his best. Although a number of other collaborators appear on almost every track, the specific subtle production touch of Fraser T Smith can be found across the board, if only in the form of his approach to restraint, of using brevity of production to better highlight Stormzy as a lyrical force. Many people worked on “Gang Signs & Prayer,” but it is clear that the album is, on an emotional level, very personal to Stormzy himself, and his many collaborators, Fraser T Smith among them, have done much to respect that, and the album as a whole benefits greatly from that respect.

The year 2017 has been an excellent year for grime from both new and old-school figures, and “Gang Signs & Prayer” still stands out as something distinctly special in a genre that has seen a year full of notable music.

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