Image Credit: Atlantic Records
On the day the nation woke up to find that Boris was still very much in power, we also woke up to a new project from Stormzy and that helped numb the pain a little.
This isn’t purely coincidental, for the past few years the rapper has been a vocal critic of the Tory government, holding politicians to account for inequalities and prejudices ingrained in the UK political system. From donning a Union Flag stab-vest amongst flames and anti-Tory slogans for an era-defining Glastonbury set to starting a scholarship system for black students and a publishing scheme for underrepresented voices, Stormzy is becoming a figurehead for the disenfranchised and politicised youth. He’s become an icon but simultaneously a figure of ridicule and critique from the right-wing and tabloid media. Fame is a double-edged sword for the rapper.This duality is front and centre on Stormzy’s latest album, Heavy Is The Head, an exploration of exposure and a kick-back against critics that proves to be his best and most consistent work to date.
“You little fuck boys do my head in” Stormzy raps on ‘Big Michael’, the album’s opening track. A dark grime beat clatters under aggressive hooks and verses as the rapper takes on the media, hype, hypocrisy and stardom, setting the tone for the tracks to come. He takes on frustration with the music industry, his fans and the media and this sentiment drives the album. There's no second album fatigue here, if anything the success of his first spurns him on to create something greater. Heavy Is The Head is an album with its sights on a target far bigger than mere “grime beef” and bragging, it’s taking on an entire establishment.
He also gets a good “suck your mum” line in which is always good.
‘Crown’ takes this further, the distilled and minimal beat acting as a beautiful backdrop for the message he presents. “I done a scholarship for the kids, they said it's racist. That's not anti-white, it's pro-black”, he explains as he becomes increasingly frustrated. His anger takes the form of lines such as “don't comment on my culture, you ain't qualified. Stab us in the back and then apologize”, agitated with being misunderstood and misappropriated.
Despite the anger present on the album, Stormzy still manages to balance pop with politics and incorporate some great hooks and playful flows throughout the tracklist. He trades flows with Aitch on ‘Pop Boy’ as the two bounce off each other with swagger and energy, creating one of the most enjoyable moments on the album. ‘Wiley Flow’ and ‘Bronze’ continue this swagger, bragging about record sales and paying respects to the OGs of grime. While his instrumentals don’t hit quite as hard as they should and a few stale tracks or features can be found in the belly of the album (*cough* Ed Sheeran), the versatility presented makes up for this as Stormzy fuses elements of grime, RnB and pop to create slick and well-crafted tunes.
There are also moments of quiet contemplation and vulnerability, an endearing contrast to the aggression of tracks like ‘Vossi Bop’. “How the hell did I buss so fast?” he ask on ‘Audacity’, questioning the worth of his success and his sudden shift to stardom. He’s beginning to accept the enormity of his fame but still doesn’t feel comfortable with his success. This is furthered by his awkwardness on ‘Lessons’ as he apologises for his infidelity to presenter Maya Jama and asks for forgiveness.
This sentiment is, however, slightly undercut by the track which immediately follows, where he talks about giving someone a facial.
It’s this contrast of anger and vulnerability, that make Heavy Is The Head something above and beyond his previous work. Stormzy is tired of being typecast by the media, of his messages hijacked by politicians and of serving a demanding fanbase. Heavy Is The Head is a brilliant rejection and rebellion against the adversity he has come up against over the past few years, from tabloid scrutiny to Glastonbury pressure and it creates something brilliant, I just wish he went further. Stormzy channels the angst of fame, much like Kanye’s brutal depiction of celebrity on Yeezus or Cobain’s discomfort with fame on In Utero.
He casts himself as a sort of Shakespearean hero. Led astray, betrayed and wounded. He’s wracked by guilt and insecurity and living in constant exposure and frustrated with the broken systems that govern us. He presents himself at his most vulnerable yet his most confrontational and that’s what makes Heavy Is The Head such a great listen.
The crown of fame and stardom may be heavy, but Stormzy most certainly deserves it.