Stormzy's Heavy Is The Head Proves He's Not Just An Artist. He's A Leader
How do you follow up an album like Gang Signs & Prayer? Stormzy’s debut album shot straight to No1 when it was released in 2017, affirming grime’s infiltration into the mainstream, a shift in popular music for which he himself is so often credited as the main catalyst. It was urgent and arresting, full of bangers that could whip a crowd into a frenzy, but also an introduction to his softer side with tracks such as “Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2”.
It was one hell of a debut and one that would be hard to follow. Stormzy knows this. Even the title of his new album, Heavy Is The Head, is indicative of the pressure that comes with the level of success he’s enjoyed. Taken from his second single from the album, “The Crown”, released in the summer, the full line is “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and the weight that comes with being the UK’s king of grime anchors down the main themes of the album. Out of 16 tracks, the majority ruminate on life at the top, whether he’s defending his title with bravado, talking down to his enemies or simply reflecting on how things have changed.
This, you might think, could be a bad thing. Who wants to listen to successful people lament their own success? Yet Stormzy’s frank and open honesty on these tracks, paired with their souped-up production, saves them from being too indulgent. The album’s big opener, “Big Michael”, is ferocious and assertive, with a brass section slipped into the arrangement to give it that extra oomph. In the first verse, he reminds us of his achievements at Glastonbury earlier this year and goes on to disparage his critics. But then he calls on his fans to “rise up” as “young kings”. His boasting isn’t designed to simply brag – although it serves that purpose extremely well – it’s designed to inspire. Aside from our obvious favourite line on the album, "I’m Mr GQ when I'm gracing on the cover", that crops up on "Rachael's Little Brother", it's lyrics like these that have the biggest impact.
The most striking thing about Heavy Is The Head, however, is how much Stormzy has elevated his craft. Each track sounds like the artist we’re all familiar with, but he starts to explore different sounds, from Afrobeat rhythms on tracks such as “Rainfall” and “Own It” to songs that are obviously influenced by a more American sound, such as “One Second”, featuring HER. Strings, brass bands, choirs and acoustic guitars all make an appearance alongside the heavy bass we currently associate with Stormzy’s music, indicating clear effort on his part to give his sound more technical finesse. The result is music that’s well rounded and rich with nuances. This is an album worth investing in some good headphones for.
And then there’s the features. We have to talk about the features. From HER’s silky vocals to Tiana Major9’s soulful input on “Rainfall” and “Superheroes”, it’s clear Stormzy has enormous respect for every artist he’s invited to be on the album and they’re given ample room to showcase their talents. Tiana Major9’s rendition of Mary Mary’s “Shackles (Praise You)” on “Rainfall” is perhaps my personal favourite use of a sample this year, while Yebba’s harmonies on “Don’t Forget” are reminiscent of the likes of Imogen Heap. The only anomaly in this line-up of features is Ed Sheeran, whose input on “Own It” isn’t necessarily bad, just not needed.
The track that already has people talking is “Lessons”, the penultimate song before his No1 single “Vossi Bop”. It’s the Maya Jama track. A reflection on his break up with his ex-girlfriend, it is the most vulnerable we hear Stormzy on this album. He doesn’t beg for forgiveness, but acknowledges his own shortcomings and admits that, if he were her, he wouldn’t forgive him either. He says that his nephew is still asking where his auntie has gone and talks about wanting to have children with her. It’s an emotional listen and a very public apology, but one has to wonder whether this should have been a conversation that was had in private.
If that’s the track everyone is talking about now, the one that will surely make waves once the world listens to it is “Superheroes”, Stormzy’s touching address to black youth that reminds us why he’s so important. “Young black kings, don’t die on me,” he pleads. “Young black queens, don’t quit now.” He shouts out Venus and Serena Williams, Malorie Blackman and Little Simz for their excellence and proudly exclaims, “What a f**king time to be a black Brit.” After setting up a scholarship for black students at Cambridge and his own publishing imprint at Penguin, #MerkyBooks, to help young writers, “Superheroes” reminds its listeners that behind the bravado, the bass and the bestselling records, he is a leader for a generation who has few other people to look up to. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but, my God, does Stormzy wear it well.