You might have first heard the sound of UK’s underground rap scene on Drake’s More Life, but the genre known as “Grime” has existed in London since the early 2000’s. Artists such as Wiley and Dizzee Rascal (the latter of which performed at the London Olympic Games), made the style popular with their records Treddin’ on Thin Ice and Boy in da Corner, respectively. Consisting of aggressive drum programming, an affinity for MIDI instruments, and an overall gritty, digital sound, grime took hold of London’s underground as their definitive contribution to the rap scene.
It wasn’t really until last May 2016, when Skepta, the most popular grime rapper of today, released his fourth record Konnichiwa, which went to #2 on the UK Albums Chart, only behind Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. It was the highest grime-charting album to date since Dizzee Rascal’s 2009 release Tongue n’ Cheek debuted at #3. Konnichiwa not only featured artists such as Pharrell Williams and fellow grime rapper Wiley, but discussed grime’s influence on rap music from the United States. It also won the 2016 Mercury Prize.
At the 2015 Brit Awards, when Kanye West performed his Paul McCartney collaboration “All Day” for the first time, he stood in the middle of Skepta and his fellow grime rappers, one of which was an up-and-coming young MC by the name of Stormzy. It was an important moment not just for the Kanye co-sign, but for grime in general, a movement that had been continually viewed with a marginalized lens as too dangerous for Britain’s major pop music showcase. Skepta might have reached Grime’s peak for the moment, but it only took half of a year since Konnichiwa for Grime to blow up in America.
It might be disappointing that grime’s commercialized form on Drake’s More Life is what truly spread grime to the Americas, but that’s not to say that Drake’s version of grime is the highest to chart since Konnichiwa. Skepta and Kanye West might have cleared the path for grime to hit the ears of sound-adopting artists like Drake, but a month earlier than More Life‘s release, the new grime prophet took flight since his entrance into that legendary 2015 Brit Awards performance—the aspiring Stormzy released his debut single “Big For Your Boots.”
The Ed Sheeran co-sign was a big help as well, but on “Big For Your Boots,” Stormzy perfectly combines paying respects to grime’s past while simultaneously reinventing it. With the vocal intensity of the grime movement on his back, matched with the high-pitched squeals of the originator, Dizzee Rascal, Stormzy addresses his dominance and humbling views towards what it means to be a grime rapper. His record Gang Sings & Prayer became the first grime record to reach #1 on the UK Albums Chart, as well as have all sixteen tracks place on the UK Singles Chart (with seven in the Top 40).
UK rap has always been a little behind when it came to lyricism, sounding like they’re still making the same boasts and urban-life descriptions as New York rappers from the late-80’s, but there are moments on Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer that show a subtle evolution of the genre. For one, the similarities in flow between grime and trap are seemingly almost at a crossing point, and the dark digital production isn’t too far off either, although grime has more of a faster-paced and aggressive drum and bass feel than the relentless hi-hats of Atlanta trap.
Where Stormzy makes his mark however, is with tracks like “Velvet,” “Cigarettes & Kush,” “Blinded By Your Grace,” and “100 Bags,” all subtler and more earnest moments that vary an otherwise hard-hitting assault from grime’s new prince. The diversity of the record really humanizes Stormzy, something that clearly helped bring grime out from the prejudiced views of its past to go to #1.
It all makes clear sense as well, as Gang Sings & Prayer fulfills every aspect that a great debut record should include: “First Thing’s First,” his declaration, “Big For Your Boots,” his rap prowess, “Blind By Your Grace, Pt. 1,” his spirituality, “Velvet,” his softer side, “Cigarettes & Kush,” his singing ability, “100 Bags,” a song dedicated to his mother, the closer “Lay Me Bare,” an introspective track about his depression, and “Cold,” his party anthem. (Fun fact: the line “the way that I see you, you’re all that I’m needing” from “Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 1” sounds exactly like “If I can see it, then I can be it” from “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly).
Like any young, debuting rap artist, Stormzy still has a lot to learn when it comes to lyricism and varying up his rapping style (problems that have always existed within grime music), but it’s a major step out from behind-Skepta-behind-Kanye to the chart-topping Grime record holder. As long as he plays the game clean, and his recent philanthropic work was a good start, Stormzy has a very nice road ahead of him.