“How’s the best spitter in Grime so commercial?” Stormzy enquires in the final verse of his track ‘Wiley Flow’.
He raises an interesting point. How, after all, can a genre that is defined by its existence on the fringes of society become fronted by a man who is headlining Glastonbury and winning Brit awards?
This juxtaposition between authenticity and the celebration of success is the theme for much of Stormzy’s long-awaited sophomore album, Heavy is the Head.
Throughout the 16-track release, the rapper, real name Michael Omari, leads listeners through excursions that flutter between introspective personal realities – such as the Maya Jama-inspired ‘Lessons’ – and the absurdities of where he has found himself in culture. “They’re saying I’m the voice of the young black youth, then I say ‘yeah cool’, and I bun my zoot”, he divulges in the top 5 single ‘Crown’.
Heavy is the Head sees Stormzy expanding his sonic horizons, utilising techniques that may be more familiar in the realms of chart-friendly hip-hop. Early album track ‘Rainfall’ samples Mary Mary’s 2000 RnB classic ‘Shackles (Praise You)’. And several other tracks, such as ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’, create vocal melodies with the use of intentionally abundant auto-tune.
Name-checking his sister and referring to himself, ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’ exemplifies Stormzy’s penchant for vulnerable songwriting that has contributed to his crossover into mainstream recognition.
This type of self-referencing is evident throughout the album. Whether it’s addressing the contrast between his tender Blinded By Your Grace persona and his tendency to exhibit external aggression, on opening track ‘Big Michael’. Or weaponising his mainstream success to clap back at critics on ‘Rainfall’ (“I can’t even hear you through my Brit awards”).
Although this is an album with unmistakable flashes of humour – evident in one of 2019’s highlights, ‘Vossi Bop’ – this is principally a collection of songs about grappling with superstardom, and the highs and lows that come with it. Since releasing his debut album, Stormzy has funded scholarships to send young black students to Cambridge and headlined the UK’s biggest festival – both milestones that were met with unjust controversy from isolated pockets of society.
Heavy is the Head documents the pride, the determination and the weariness, that accompanies being at the forefront of a movement.
Stormzy has stepped forward as an unlikely mouthpiece for a sizeable portion of society who badly need one in popular culture. He may be sharing sentiments about racism and class that many have held for decades, but your Coronation Street-watching Mum has heard of Stormzy, and that alone illustrates his value as a representative.
Having turned down a Jay-Z collaboration earlier this year and used his historic Glastonbury set (not to mention his curated ELLE cover) to pay homage to black voices in the country, Stormzy has undeniably produced a Grime-Pop fusion album, but on his own terms.
His message may be fraught with pessimism at times, but – for now at least – we are in the age of pessimism. Gone are the days of Blowin’ in the Wind. The underrepresented youth have a new spokesperson and a new mantra: FUCK THE GOVERNMENT, FUCK BORIS.