The British icon shakes off all burdens on his third studio album, sacrificing the raps for tender gospel where both Stormzy and listeners breathe a sigh of relief.
Pressure can make diamonds. But there’s always an extra emphasis on the “can”. Since catapulting into the spotlight, South London’s Stormzy has became the de facto face of UK rap and grime. The CV is extensive: three number one albums (including his latest), Glastonbury headliner, founder of the #Merky empire, rejector of Jay-Z collaborations, and a mainstream embrace into elitist, pale-skinned spaces. Three years since his last album, Heavy is the Head, Stormzy tackles his much-anticipated comeback with familiar ideas but wider execution.
This Is What I Mean reaches finality with Stormzy the singer, indulging rather than dabbling in the sound that many might not want to hear, but can certainly adapt to.
Stormzy seems to know the difference between a rapper and an artist. He’s frequently said he’s not just a rapper, but a musician. His process is not about dropping three verses over a beat. It’s then fitting that the creation of This Is What I Mean took place in a retreat to Osea Island with a plucked group of producers and singer-songwriters (Debbie, Prgrshn, Tendai). From the singles alone, it was clear this was not going to be no rap album. This is “Blinded by Your Grace” new and improved. Warm, gospel production are headlined by plenty keys and minimal rapping, leading to a stripped-back album made for a Tiny Desk concert. The writing is intimate, fixating on his public ex-relationship and grip with God. equipped with the emotion needed to create the conviction.
The singles did not set a strong precedent, with a potential disaster looming in fans conscience. Yet This Is What I Mean thwarts preconceived doubts to avoids being a disaster. It is tightly knit, and actually follows one direction and sound rather than the half-grime, half R&B approach of Gang Signs & Prayer and Heavy Is the Head. You would rather Stormzy be all in or all out rather than dithering between two lanes, which is what held back his earlier albums from classic status.
Multiple tracks demonstrate Stormzy’s growth from his previous work. The eight-minute opener “Fire + Water” sets the bar, a coherently progressive cut that upgrades Stormzy’s songwriting from tolerable to poetic. Lead single “Hide & Seek” sounds supremely better within the album than as a single. “Please” and its reprise “Sampha’s Plea” are serene tracks guided to their destination through heart and simplicity. Closing pair “I Got My Smile Back” and “Give it to the Water” take the album from warmth to motherly embrace. It’s easy to throw the Drake card to these songs, but it’s more in the line of a Daniel Caesar.
This Is What I Mean is brave while keeping it safe at the same time. It is all a clean, pristine effort, with nothing offensive or tragic to the ears. That comes from Stormzy’s reliance on a sound that is hard to vary over twelve songs. Gospel keys are at the heart of seven tracks, leading to portions of the album drowning in similarity. A song like “Bad Blood” comes and goes without making an impression, struggling to add anything that the surrounding tracks weren’t doing already. Perhaps This Is What I Mean is too meticulous in trying to be a “musical album”. Stormzy feels free but he also needs to let loose a little more.
In similar fashion to Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, This Is What I Mean was made for Stormzy’s sake. “I’ve made peace with the idea that no one may like it,” he stated before its release. But both Stormzy and fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The direction has plenty payoff, constructed by learning and growing from earlier efforts to deliver his most coherent album to date. This is what Stormzy means, and Stormzy means well.
7 / 10
Best tracks: “Fire + Water”, “Give it to the Water’, “I Got My Smile Back”, “Sampha’s Plea”, “My Presidents Are Black”