As Hip Hop has emerged over the years as the world’s largest music genre, it has unsurprisingly inspired a lot of Hip Hop scenes to emerge in countries outside of America. Typically, these countries will merge other kinds of popular music with traditional Hip Hop, creating new and interesting versions of the genre. One country where this has happened is Great Britain. In Britain, artists have merged types of Electronic Music like Jungle and Drum n Bass with Hip Hop to create Grime music. Over the last several years, Grime has become one of the most popular kinds of music in Britain. Out of all the Grime artists who have become huge in Britain, no one has been more successful than Stormzy. Since bursting onto the scene in the mid-2010s, Stormzy has had a meteoric rise. His first record, Gang Signs And Prayer, was released in 2017; it was the first Grime record to go number one in the UK. He followed this one up in 2019 with his second record of Heavy Is The Head. This record was critically acclaimed and solidified Stormzy as one of the most important British music artists today. After about three years, Stormzy is back with a new record called This Is What I Mean. Judging from the singles released before this record came out, which both have an Afrobeat and Soul sound, it is apparent that Stormzy is going in a different direction on it; it is apparent that this record is not going to go in typical Grime direction that he has been known for to this point. With that being said, here is my opinion on Stormzy’s This Is What I Mean. Please let me know in the comments how you feel about this album, and also comment what your favorite songs from it are.
If it was not already apparent from the record’s singles, it is easy to determine after listening to the first song that this album is going to be way different from most of Stormzy’s other music. ‘Fire + Water’ is an 8:30-minute track that starts off with an acoustic sound and picks a beat and more layers to the melody as the song progresses. As the song starts, the instrumental solely consists of a warm and sweet piano riff. About halfway through the song, a slow, classic R&B beat kicks in, giving the song a bit more power and energy. At about the six-minute mark, the beat changes, taking on more of a 90s Hip Hop feeling. Stormzy’s vocal performance on this track may come as a surprise to some because it is way calmer and softer than one may expect to hear from him. He switches back and forth from singing to rapping, always keeping the same timbre and vocal style no matter which delivery he is using. His vocals do match the energy of the instrumental super well, and it just shows how diverse of an artist he can be. As the song progresses, the vocals get layered, with a choir kicking into the background at one point; this gives the song added texture levels that it needs. In ‘Fire + Water,’ Stormzy is talking about a failing relationship that is tearing him apart. He is trying to fight and keep the relationship alive, but he can feel it slipping away. Following this, we get the title track, ‘This Is What I Mean.’ It has an energy that is a lot closer to what most people would expect to hear from Stormzy. The instrumental starts with a heavy and dark orchestral sound. It sounds like the kind of music that would play during an intense scene of some sort of epic fantasy movie. About a minute into the song, the instrumental gains energy, picking up a sick bassline, a tough beat, and some intense sound effects. The song feels like a straight-up combination of Grime music and classic R&B and Soul music. Stormzy’s vocal performance is more like what one would expect to hear from him if they had just heard his hardest Grime music. This is such a harsh yet vibrant song that is so unlike everything I have heard before. It is so unique and fun. On ‘This Is What I Mean,’ Stormzy is reflecting on the monumental amount of success he has had over the last several years and how he knows how important he is to his community and fans. ‘Firebabe’ was the second single released in anticipation of this record. It is the kind of song that no one would expect to hear from Stormzy, and it confirmed that this record was going to be different from his past projects. This is a slow and sultry R&B track that has a mid-2000s feeling to it. The instrumental for this song has a nice and cozy melody provided by a keyboard and a bare-bones beat that quietly drives the tempo. This instrumental has a sound that makes me think of artists like Mario or Alicia Keys. Stormzy shows how nice of a singing voice he has on this track as well. His tone is so rich and warm, and it matches the sound of the instrumental attractively. On ‘Firebabe,’ Stormzy discusses the first time he laid eyes on his ex-girlfriend, and how it was love at first sight. The next song, ‘Please,’ feels a bit heavier than any of the first three songs. Even though the melody does have a bright tone, there is something about this song that feels very somber. The melody is driven by a beautiful piano riff and by various string instruments in the background. A Heavenly-sounding chorus also sings in the background of this track. Paired with the melody, it gives this song a Church feeling. Stormzy rapping style on this song sounds so serious. The way he raps on this song does sound great on the heavy nature of the instrumental. The “Church” sound that this song is perfect for its lyrical content, as Stormzy has said this song sort of feels like a confession to him. He vents about various things in his life that have been bothering him and tries to come to terms with things in his past that have hurt him deeply.
Stormzy goes in a lighter and more fun direction on the song ‘Need You.’ I will say right off the bat that I could see this song being a massive hit. I would be surprised if it is not one of the biggest tracks to come off this album. The instrumental is so fun and different, and it will make anyone want to dance when they hear it. I really love the melody of this song, as it is very unique. It is like a Bossa Nova version of a traditional Dancehall melody. I can hear the elements of Dancehall within this melody, but there is something about it that has a Latin and a Jazzy feeling. The beat has a traditional Dancehall sound that has the kind of tempo that just forces you to move. It is one of those beats that makes it impossible not to bop your head or move your hips when it comes starts playing. Vocally, Stormzy gets a lot of assistance from up-and-coming singer Tendai. His performance drives this track and really stands out. Stormzy delivers a calm and low-key verse that fits the instrumental well, but Tendai is the real star of the song. On ‘Need You,’ Tendai and Stormzy are singing about still thinking about a former significant other that they loved and wishing that they are okay. Following this, we get ‘Hide and Seek,’ which was the first single released from this record. Similar to the song that precedes it, this track has a warm and fun melody set to a calm Dancehall beat. Instead of having a Jazzy melody though, this one has a joyous and soulful R&B melody. Even though the melody basically only consists of a keyboard riff, it is still pretty grand and all-encompassing. Also, like the last track, Stormzy gets a lot of help on the vocals of this track. Nigerian singers Oxlade, Ayanna, and Teni all contribute to this song at various points. All three of them of light and breathy tones, and they contrast with Stormzy’s low and gruff vocals very well. I like how Stormzy’s voice creates a balance with the voices of his guest on this track. On ‘Hide and Seek,’ Stormzy is trying to convince a girl he loves to be with him, and he is going over all of the reasons that he thinks they would be good for each other. ‘My Presidents Are Black’ goes with a sound that is unlike anything I have ever heard from Stormzy to this point. It goes back to a kind of American Hip Hop that I personally hold near and dear to my heart(regardless of how off his rocker the creator of this sound has become). This song has a sound that is very inspired by Kanye West’s Chipmunk Soul music from the early 2000s. The melody is driven by a vibrant and pleasant piano riff that is assisted by extremely pitched-up vocals. It is very reminiscent of the music from Kanye West’s first two albums. The beat for this song even has an early 2000s style to it. Overall, this instrumental has such a retro and nostalgic element to it. Stormzy has a bold yet tranquil flow and vocal style that fits the song super well. It does not necessarily stand out, but it does sound very nice in this instrumental. In ‘My Presidents Are Black,’ Stormzy talks about all of his Black idols in the industry and how it is difficult to be Black and famous. He feels like he always has a target on his back and that people want him to fail. ‘Sampha’s Plea’ serves as an interlude in a way; it is the only song on the record where Stormzy is not on the track at all. For this track, Sampha sings over a Heavenly, deep, and heavy piano riff. Even though this song is so simple, it is still so powerful because of Sampha’s vocals. He has the kind of voice that pierces through the soul and hits the listener in such a big way. On ‘Sampha’s Plea,’ Sampha is begging a significant other to stay with him. He needs this person to help him stay grounded and does not want to imagine a life that he has to go through without them.
After that last track by Sampha, I sort of expected the next one to be high-energy and shake up the feeling the last song provided. Instead, for ‘Holy Spirit,’ Stormzy doubles down on this sound and sings on his own acoustic instrumental. On this one, Stomzy sings over a delightful and comfy piano riff. Like many other moments on this record, Stormzy shows off how good of a singer he is. Even though this song is so simple, it hits hard because of how engulfing the melody is paired with Stormzy’s voice. On ‘Holy Spirit,’ seems to be saying a prayer and asking God for help. He feels immense pressure because of the position he is in from his fame, and he knows he can not do it alone. Following this, we get ‘Bad Blood,’ which also has a slow and Soulful R&B melody. This one does have a beat, though; this beat has an early 2000s feeling, though. This beat paired with this melody makes me think of rappers like Fabolous or Cassidy. Like many other moments on this record, I like how Stormzy’s low and gruff tone he raps with contrasts with the colorful and bright melody and beat. He is giving these kinds of instrumentals an element they usually do not have. ‘Bad Blood’ is an ode to Stormzy’s ex. He wants this person to know that he still loves them and that he is grateful for all of the great times they had together. The next song, ‘I Got My Smile Back,’ keeps the R&B-tinted Hip Hop theme that the last song had. This instrumental feels a lot more modern, though It has a melody that is reminiscent of the Gospel Hip Hop music that got popular in the early 2010s. This melody, which consists of bright and vibrant synths and distorted choir-like vocals, makes me think of some of the music back artists like Chance the Rapper or DRAM from about 8 to 10 years ago. Vocally, Stormzy does his thing like always, but the real stand-out performer on this track is India.Arie, who handles the chorus and outro. Her voice sounds so great on this melody, and provides a layer to this track that it needs. On ‘I Got My Smile Back,’ talks about his come-up and how he is trying to set a great example for the next generation of rappers coming up today. The album closes out with the song ‘Give It To The Water.’ It is another song where Stormzy is not the main vocalist. In fact, he does not come onto the song at all until the last verse, which starts around the 3:00 minute mark. Instead, the main vocalist on this track is Debbie Ehirim, an up-and-coming singer from London. I would love to hear more from her soon, as I love her performance on this track. Similar to ‘Sampha’s Plea,’ this is an acoustic track that pretty much just consists of an angelic and cheerful piano riff which becomes assisted by some choir-like vocals at the end of the song. On ‘Give It To The Water,’ Stormzy and Debbie Ehirim are letting go of their problems and giving them to God. The symbol of water in the Bible is the Holy Spirit, and Stormzy realizes he needs to let God help him get through his issues because he can not get through them on their own. This is a cool and mature way to end the record, and it brings the album to a close nicely.
Judging from the first two singles, it was obvious that This Is What I Mean was going to be way different than anything Stormzy has made to this point. Stormzy has always been known for a more high energy and harsher sound, and this record departs from that style of music completely. When I heard those first two singles, I was curious to see could make a whole album with this style and keep of the quality of music that he has been known for. The answer to this is a definite yes. Even though This Is What I Mean has a sound that is so far from what Stormzy has done before, it is still very good. On this record, which has a sound that is centered around R&B, Dancehall, and Soul music, Stormzy discusses the struggles he has had with fame and his recent break up with his long time girlfriend. He opens up in a way that he has not done on previous records, letting listeners know him in a more intimate way. I think that fans will end up appreciating this record more and more as time goes on because of the way he opens up on it and lets his fans into his mind. This Is What I Mean is a record that shows Stormzy’s growth has an artist and a human, and it once again cements his status at the top of the Hip Hop game in Britain.