Have you ever heard of grime music? Me neither—yet this is the first classification I find when I plug Michael Omari into a search engine, otherwise known as his rap persona, Stormzy. I put on his latest album, Gang Signs and Prayer, and have a first listen to this subgenre made up of reggae, hip-hop, R&B, and electronic music.
Omari grew up in Thornton Heath, London, where he attended a private school and was expelled multiple times, and was eventually kicked out of his sixth form school in his eighth year. After working for a few years, he turned to his music full time; in his younger years, he was known for causing trouble with popular rappers in his neighborhood at the local clubs; probably because no one takes likely to being dethroned.
His first EP, Dreamers Disease, was released in 2014 and led to his rise in popularity in the UK. He became the first artist to have a freestyle reach the top ten on the UK Singles Chart after launching a successful Christmas Number 1 campaign. An impressive feat, he continued on to drop a single song in 2016 before taking a break and announcing a surprise full length album, Gang Signs and Prayer, this February. He let everyone know by posting a multitude of billboards around London with “#GSAP 24.02”, leaving his fans wondering what was coming next.
They were not disappointed. GSAP debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart. With a 7.6 seal of approval from Pitchfork (for comparison, they gave Ed Sheeran’s latest album a 2.8), along with four and five star reviews from multiple reputable websites, Stormzy is now being called a ‘grime lord’, and I believe he may be responsible for bringing this mostly underground scene to light for many who have experienced nothing like it before. He made waves with his remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”, performed at this year’s BRIT Awards—the version is available on Spotify for download.
After listening to GSAP in its entirety, I have to admit I was hesitant at first. Towards the end of the album, though, I began to understand the vision that Stormzy presents. Like most rappers, the lyrics can be playful and explicitly claim dominance over other rappers. I did not expect to see so much vulnerability woven into verses that can turn vulgar at the drop of a beat; he gives shout outs to his sister, his mother, and acknowledges his long-lasting battle with depression. The song “Lay Me Bare” addresses this specifically, and is probably the most truthful song on the album, which was necessary as a final track to land the LP and leave the listener intrigued by the complexity of his artistry.
It is clear that Michael Omari has been through a lot of struggle in his life that is presented through his music and validated by his fans who relate and support him. On Twitter, he actively interacts with his followers—responding to them, thanking them, retweeting them. While his rap persona is raw and tough and occasionally poetic, it seems as though he loves expressing how humbled and happy he is with the success of his new record. Scrolling through his feed, you find little bits of prose, like “we were raised under grey skies”, and later on, you find tweets about his favorite hot sauce.
At the young, ripe age of twenty-three, Stormzy has a long journey ahead of him. Even fathoming the amount of success he has gained just from an EP and a single LP is a difficult task; it seems as though his connections are becoming more and more vast. He is Kanye West-approved, especially after his freestyle cover of Ultralight Beam on BBC Radio 1. A new technique for budding artists is to make moves such as that one—drawing attention to his own talent and associating himself with big name artists like Sheeran and Kanye will allow him to network on a level he would not have been able to otherwise. I am excited and curious to see how his popularity grows in the coming year, especially in the US and around the rest of the world.
To listen to Gang Signs and Prayers: https://open.spotify.com/album/5fkFWJ9LZizXE4yPenNGuy
To watch the BRIT Awards performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c09cq3WjWng&feature=youtu.be
To listen to the BBC Radio 1 cover: http://www.nme.com/news/watch-stormzy-cover-kanye-wests-ultralight-beam-1979675