Stormzy’s career checklist has been revised and expanded several times in recent years. With two number one albums in the UK to his name (and a third is definitely on the way), the South London resident also ushered in a new generation of Glastonbury headliners by announcing plans for “This Is What We Mean Day” — a specially organized event that will be part of the All Points East Festival 2023 — and launched a host of important and inclusive initiatives (most recently #Merky FC, a partnership with Adidas that is “committed to expanding and protecting diverse representation in the football industry”). For Stormzy, such lofty life goals should seem more like open goals at the moment.
Given his successful reputation, it’s no surprise that preparations for “This Is What I Mean”, the sequel to “Heavy Is The Head” in December 2019, were carefully planned. Having set up a “Stormzy music camp” on the island of Osea in Essex, the 29-year-old musician gathered an ensemble of musicians and collaborators to help create his third studio album, a work he had previously promised would be “an intimate love letter to music.” . Developing further, Stormzy added in a pre-release statement (in which he removed the cap from Tyler, a similar greeting message from the Creator for “IGOR”): “I pray that [the album] will touch you and capture your imagination, and I pray that someone, somewhere feels it.”
Setting such goals for “This Is What I Mean” foreshadows a largely mellow and mature tone of the album, in which thoughtful, suave and more melodic than ever, Stormzy pours his heart out on the record. “I’m a sensitive soul,” he practically whispers in harmony-rich “Please.” “Could you please suspend the applause?” Considering that the two lead singles from the record, “Firebabe” and “Hide & Seek”, highly rated among the smoothest slow jams of its creator, it becomes clear that we are far from Stormzy 2019 (“it’s not the same anymore”. the man who said he had a heavy head,” he offers as a farewell shot to the incendiary title song, which, on the contrary, serves as an outstanding rap moment of the album), not to mention Stormzy’s “Shut Up”, which many people met in the park. back in 2015.
“This Is What I Mean” shows how Stormzy lets his listeners in like never before. In “Bad Blood,” he analyzes the breakup of his recent high-profile relationship (“news, blogs and websites never bother us”) before poetically declaring that his love will win: “I have to be by your side because I know your heart.” The inspiring gospel tones of the “Holy Spirit” are another bright event in which the singing Stormzy emphasizes the role that his faith continues to play: “You gave me peace and purpose/Even though I don’t deserve it, even though I’m far from perfect.”
The thrilling song “I Got My Smile back” is Stormzy’s most revealing moment ever, in which he acknowledges his past struggles with his mental health. “Me and loneliness kick him from time to time,” he declares to soothing choral voices and determined beats. “She knows I’m not hers, and she’s not mine / Me and joy became stronger, it was too late.” The second verse of the track is a vital expression of vulnerability for a major artist, which he can share with his listeners, some of whom may end up drawing inner strength from Stormzy’s own life experience.
Among the many participants in the recording are 0207 Def Jam signee Debbie, who outshines everyone on “Firebabe” and the blissful final album “Give It To The Water”, Sampha (who is given his own track on the pleading “Sampha’s Plea”) and a host of afropop stars, including Thames, Amaarae and Ira Starr. Stormzy leans on and gives its guests enough breathing space so they can apply their individual influence to the record, demonstrating the rapper’s firm belief in the collective power of music.
It’s a bit disappointing that we hear Stormzy give free rein to the microphone less often, but on the other hand, this record will never be a recreation of “Heavy Is The Head” or the propensity of “Gang Signs & Prayer” for immediate dirt hits. Nevertheless, the harsh lyricism is still present: the assertive “My Presidents Are Black” refers to Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” after stating that, listening to this album, we are “now tuned in to my magnum opus.” A snippet of the conversation concludes the track, which highlights Stormzy’s pioneering presence in British music: “The road you’re walking now, you’re paving the way. This is the road that all these people should follow.” With “This is what I mean,” Stormzy continues to lead: it means that another goal is marked in this checklist.
Release date: November 25, 2022
Record Label: 0207 Def Jam / Hashtag Merky Music