From catching the British public’s attention with a freestyle in the park in 2015 to ending 2019 on the cover of Time magazine, Stormzy’s meteoric rise to prominence in the UK defied all accepted notions about the possibilities of domestic rap. His debut album, 2017’s independently released Gang Signs and Prayers, broke first-week streaming records in the UK, topped the UK album charts, and received widespread acclaim from both fans and critics alike.
The album revealed Stormzy to be an artist with broad music sensibilities beyond grime, while proudly waving the banner for a genre that has vilified for decades. Gang Signs and Prayers firmly implanted the Croydon-born emcee in the British public conscience and was a harbinger of a commercial power shift in UK music. Heavy Is the Head, Stormzy’s highly anticipated sophomore album, follows on the heels of the announcement of a colossal world tour scheduled for 2020. The question is, will it live up to its vaunted predecessor?
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: No skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Every song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish.
1. “Big Michael”
“First Things First” will be a hard intro to top. Grime synth horns to get us going. “Said I went mainstream, suck your mum.” Nobody does indignant quite like Big Michael. Waiting for a drop. Stormzy is negotiating these horns with dexterity. Resentment is in the air. The drop’s not coming, is it? This is just the opening warning shot.
2. “Audacity” (feat. Headie One)
We’ve gone from angry to appalled. Stormzy is at his best when he’s appalled. Fraser T Smith’s polished brand of grime. More “Mr. Skeng” than “Signs of Life.” Smith’s beats always ensure Stormz’ voice is front and center, and he’s slewing here: “Call me the virgin Mike, how I buss so fast.” A great second track. Stormzy is agitated on the hook, and it’s infectious. A Paul Bearer reference for the wrestling nerds. Headie One is floating on this like a buoy in an ocean current. Though, the mix on Headie’s vocals is not good.
Stormzy with a choir is ready money. MJ Cole bringing the two-step vibe is the one. Stormzy sings like Em on “Hailie’s Song,” but he raps better than Em has since “‘Til I Collapse.” Premarital gospel rap is just better. Chance The Rapper needs to listen to more Stormzy. British rap is just better. Americans need to listen to more Stormzy. “That’s not anti-white, it’s pro-black, hang me out to dry, I won’t crack.” Anti-white racism is a myth, bun the Daily Mail. This choral outro is sending the sinners back to the altar rail. We need a Stormzy gospel album.
4. “Rainfall” (feat. Tiana Major9)
An insouciant Afro-fusion riddim and Stormzy is levitating. The hook is carefree and captivating at the same time. A real bop. “Send a prayer up to Trayvon.” Tiana Major9 has just revived Mary Mary and is singing the hook from “Shackles.” Who doesn’t love “Shackles?” The track has come alive now. Try not singing along to this. A real summer jam, word to The Underdog Project.
5. “Rachael’s Little Brother”
Is that a Big Brovaz “Baby Boy” sample? Oh shit, it is. Those who know, know. Big Mike’s inflections are even more pronounced on this album. Effusive rapping, and this sample knocks. “I wish I had a pound for every riddim that I clarted.” You and me both, brudda. The drums are filtering out into a piano solo, and he’s singing again. I take it back; he sings better than Em. The beat has switched up. From slewing to quavering, give the man his due.
J-Hus opening. These keys are ominous, Stormzy is on crud on this one. The flow has slipped into second gear now. The hook is prosaic, almost like a poorer version of “Return of the Rucksack.” A Kano verse on this beat would have just topped it off.
7. “Do Better”
Another choir jam? I’m here for it. I’m getting Yandhi vibes. The hook is good. The way Stormzy strides riddims is effortless. It’s hard to dislike his voice over this kind of production. The choir is taking this hook to the next level. “Do Better” is flowing now. The crescendo is strong. I repeat, we need a Stormzy gospel album.
8. “Don’t Forget to Breathe [Interlude]” (feat. Yebba)
The big man’s crooning again, and it’s so good. A xylophone in the background, this is sweet. “Ultralight Beam” is Stormzy’s favorite song. He’s feeling this one. Deep down, he wants to be a singer. H.I.T.H.’s “Velvet.” Big Mike copped the Yandhi leak.
9. “One Second” (feat. H.E.R.)
H.E.R. is in straight away, and the album has done a full 180 turn into soul. The production is burnished throughout so far. The immodesty has taken a backseat to real talk. Calling out Theresa May at the Brits was a heritage moment for Britain, but Stormzy isn’t comfortable with taking credit for doing what’s right. “One Second” is the H.E.R. show now, Stormzy is in the backseat. Guitar picking, dulcet vocals, this is good. There are already more prayers than gang signs, and it’s working.
10. “Pop Boy” (feat. Aitch)
Croydon/Corrie link up with Aitch. Ten seconds in and this is the best beat on the album. Stormzy is peppering these drums. “I’m not spitting anymore, I rap glide.” Aitch is gonna wash this riddim. Aitch is washing the riddim. A heater. Aitch is water on this beat. These two just healed the North-South divide in less than three minutes. Watch this one fly up the charts!
11. “Own It” (feat. Ed Sheeran & Burna Boy)
Afrobeats collaboration with the man of the hour, Burna Boy. Ed Sheeran is also here. Commercial singles are a requirement, but Stormzy didn’t let Nas down. Everything Burna Boy touches turns to gold. “Own It” would have fit nicely on African Giant. Someone, take Ed back to Suffolk.
12. “Wiley Flow”
Stormzy’s brooding homage to the Godfather of Grime. Mike patently reveres the scene and its founding fathers. Interpolating Wiley’s “Bad ‘Em Up” was a nice touch. This beat is filthier than Norbury Brook. Grime’s legacy and his place in it are fundamental to Stormzy’s musical identity. Wiley deserves his flowers as the architect, but Stormzy is the ruling monarch. “I can’t drop the bag, I’m the bag” is the biggest flex anywhere in hip-hop this year.
“You man are going bronze this year” just killed the Bronze disc initiative. Stormzy just claimed to be the king of grime by default. Is anyone disputing? This riddim is celestial grime, and Mike is hovering over it like specter. A head-nodder for a nocturnal drive through London.
“Don’t die on me” is a weighty way to open a song. The beat is cultured, but the message is potent and necessary. “They’ll always hate me for my skin and not the courage of my bones.” We don’t speak about Bashy’s “Black Boys” and Swiss’ “Cry” enough. Stormzy is full of pride here, pointing out the successes of Black Brits like Malorie Blackman and Michael Dapaah.
Some D’Angelo Brown Sugar keys to open up. Already remorseful. These are Stormzy’s confessions, and he sounds sincere. “You gave me the world and I gave you disrespect.” He’s opening up his heart on this one: “You can not imagine how I'm sorry man, I'm showing you, now I haven't even got the luxury of knowing you.” Stormzy is crestfallen. The hook is wistful, and this might be the best song on the album.
16. “Vossi Bop”
Stormzy’s first number-one single is left to close out the album. “I ain’t gotta be a rapper with a chain, cos the rules are kinda different when you’re baddin’ up the game.” Modest, Big Mike is not. He’s not wrong, though. “Fuck the government and fuck Boris” is the mantra of 2019, and it will live long into 2020. This album is more cohesive than GSAP. No wasted motion and no unnecessary songs or skits. At almost an hour, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, either.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts on Stormzy’s Heavy Is the Head:
Heavy Is the Head finds Stormzy more confident in his abilities, obstinate in his self-belief, and open with his emotions. As a follow up to the landmark Gang Signs and Prayers, he further embraces his eclecticism and evinces his future musical trajectory as an artist not limited by the label of being a grime emcee.
The days of needing to “crack America” are passé. There are no conspicuous attempts here to gain Billboard favor, nor would you expect any. Stormzy sits proudly atop the British scene due to an unyielding commitment to stay true to his musical self. The world can come to him.
A stronger collective work than his acclaimed debut, H.I.T.H. will only serve to solidify Stormzy’s status as a domestic superstar and increase his already aggrandizing global profile. If the crown is heavy, its burden is not apparent.