When ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ dropped two months ago, it marked an impactful return to music for Britain’s most successful rapper, three years since his prior solo release. Not only did Stormzy’s lyrics paint the picture of someone as confident as they’d ever been, someone who’s “been the G.O.A.T. for so long, I guess it’s not exciting when I win”, but the accompanying music video was as lavish as they come, replete with stars and icons from Usain Bolt to Little Simz, Jazzy B to José Mourinho.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a towering display of artistic might.
So when an official album announcement followed (confirming what Stormzy had teased much earlier in the year), it would have been safe to assume that This Is What I Mean would bear the same sort of bravado – even if ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ was only released as a single.
But that’s not where we find Stormzy is at on his latest album. Instead, imbibing the joy, forgiveness and peace from his Christian roots – which he’s said to have explored deeper than ever before during lockdown – we find Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr, beyond the hype and boastfulness of a grime MC.
That’s not to say there isn’t a confidence present on the record. On the album’s titular track, for instance, he states “She love me, ‘cause I’m handsome and I’m talented”, and on ‘My Presidents Are Black’, we’re told we’re “Now tuned into [his] magnum opus”. But both such statements, and ones like them, become hard to dispute, and are surrounded by an album that thanks and praises God for making such things possible.
In fact, just as the album cover presents a solitary letter on a doormat – compared to the totemic Last Supper imagery on his debut, Gang Signs & Prayer, or the crown-wearing burden on Heavy Is The Head – Stormzy has arrived home, to an inner sanctum.
The track ‘Please’ carries this imagery further, with Stormzy describing himself as “a sensitive soul”, so “please leave your pain at the door”, before asking the Lord to “give me the strength to forgive my dad for he is flawed, and so am I so who am I to not”.
In a recent interview with Louis Theroux, who also appears in the ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ music video, Stormzy opened up about the forgiveness he now has for his father, who he barely knew growing up. ‘Please’ is an ode to letting go, to freeing oneself by accepting another, however they may have hurt you.
A similar such theme is touched upon in ‘Hide & Seek’, which as the lead single wasn’t in fact concealed until the album’s full release, and explores the end of relationships – many fans having obviously linked it to Stormzy’s well-documented relationship and break-up with Maya Jama. The laidback flow, over a lullaby-like beat, makes for a greater listen when woven into the full record, especially following the subtle, Samba-like riddim of previous track ‘Need You’.
Again, unlike ‘Mel Made Me Do It’, there are few huge features on the album – although Nigeria’s Ayra Starr is present, as is Ghana’s Amaarae.
There is a whole track given to Sampha, however (even titled ‘Sampha’s Plea’). The South London singer seems to get the call-up to adding the finishing vocal sheen to albums from the greats, having also featured on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers’ earlier this year.
Conversely, 22-year-old Debbie Ehirim, a fellow 0207 Def Jam labelmate of Stormzy’s, gets her first major feature on album closer ‘Give It To The Water’, which she takes with beauty and grace. The gospel track epitomises the album’s ability to rouse us not through the force or high-kneed energy we’d previously come to associate with Stormzy, but through touching our spirits.
In another significant one-off interview in the run-up to the album’s release, Stormzy told Trever Nelson (who again featured in the ‘Mel Made Me Do It’ video), about how he produced the album amid the peace and seclusion of Osea Island in Essex. Such an environment seems to reflect the Stormzy of This Is What I Mean, who humbly duets with Ehirim to round-off the record.
This Is What I Mean might be a far cry from the Stormzy of old. In fact, Stormzy had described it to Theroux as “a soul album” – “I don’t mean soul music,” he clarified. “It’s just come from my soul.” When it comes to artistry, there’s little more you can hope for.