Stormzy didn’t have a moment to waste. He accelerated into a sharp left at a busy south London intersection as a traffic light flashed to red, sending the Ghanaian prayer beads dangling from the steering console of his Lamborghini flying. “Sorry, guys!” he said to his passengers with a grin.
On a mild December afternoon, the 26-year-old British music sensation, who has been recording nimble and temperature-taking rap and grime for six years, was late for a talk organised by one of his nonmusical enterprises, his Penguin Random House imprint, #Merky Books. The event was taking place at the school that expelled Stormzy as a teenager for a series of minor disciplinary issues, so he knew the winding route well enough to chat, smoke cigarettes and hum along to Top 40 radio while gliding across lanes and overtaking a dawdling double-decker bus. When he arrived, his black car was quickly surrounded by a sea of students in burgundy blazers. He opened the door to screams.
In Britain, Stormzy is both a pop idol and an avatar for his nation’s discontents. With a crisp flow, leftist political bent and wildly catchy hooks, he is adored by figures as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Adele, whose birthday party he performed at in July. His music springs from grime, a ’00s subgenre that took cues from the relentless tempos of jungle and 2-step UK garage (it is distinct from rap, and its vocalists are known as MCs). While grime can be powered by anti-establishment fury, its MC battles and up-from-the-bootstraps record labels also foster community and create scaffolding for black British expression.
In the 6-foot-5 figure of Stormzy, the re-energised grime scene of the 2010s found its poster boy and prodigal son. A lone wolf without a core crew or mentor, he lassoed social media to help his breakout track from 2015, the wisecracking freestyle ‘Shut Up,’ reach the British Top 10. Stormzy’s sound opened further to soul, trap and gospel on his debut album from 2017, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer.’ It was the first independently released record to reach the top of the British album charts.
While scores of English rock bands, pop acts and soul singers have made the leap to mainstream success in the United States, the path for rappers and grime MCs has been far more challenging. A few names broke out in indie circles in the 2000s (Dizzee Rascal, the Streets) while others have been building momentum in the past 10 years (Skepta, Slowthai).
Stormzy’s new album, ‘Heavy Is the Head,’ has a depth and sheen that may be more appealing to an expanded American audience, while retaining the cadence and wit that first endeared him to British fans. Next year, his tour will reach four continents, including a month of shows in the US, the longest time he will have spent promoting in the country.
“It’s a very specific task in getting my music how I need it to sound,” Stormzy said. “Which is British, but also international, but also very black and soulful and slapping.”
While cracking the crowded American rap market will be challenging, Stormzy’s team is hopeful. “Boundaries don’t exist anymore,” said Michael Kyser, the president of black music at Atlantic Records, which is releasing the album in partnership with Stormzy’s own #Merky imprint, the label arm of his #Merky empire. “Hip hop is a genre that brings people of all backgrounds together, and we plan on helping Stormzy continue that mission around the world, including in the US”
Stormzy has shared stages with Kanye West and Ed Sheeran, yet he thrives alone. In June, he became the first black British solo artist to headline Glastonbury, the iconic British music festival founded in 1970. He filled the stage with a prismatic vision of black Britain that included boys on BMX bikes and ballet dancers, and he blasted a speech by Labour politician David Lammy about racism and the country’s criminal justice system. He said the ambition of the set was inspired by Beyonce’s landmark Coachella performance. Even so, he said that he has yet to peak as a showman.
In truth, the workaholic Stormzy is rarely at home. He spent around two years working on ‘Heavy Is the Head,’ which lets his musical curiosity off the leash, as grime takes a back seat to silky R’n’B, staccato hip hop beats, radiant gospel and the love of pop that he broadcast with a 2014 Justin Bieber cover.
Still, shades of self-doubt and mental anguish creep into Stormzy’s music; at times, its themes are reminiscent of the introspective poetry of grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal. Stormzy’s vulnerability is poignantly clear on the self-flagellating new ballad ‘Lessons,’ in which he addresses rumours surrounding his recent split from British TV presenter and DJ Maya Jama.
The ever-multiplying online trolls don’t help with his own depression, which he has been candid about. Stormzy recently spent an hour on a park bench composing a social post encouraging voter registration before Britain’s December 12 election. (The result was an upswing of 236 per cent from the number of people who registered the day before.)
Over the past year, Stormzy’s vast aspirations have become more clear. At Glastonbury, shirtless and dripping with sweat, he stopped his set to reel off the names of dozens of rising grime and British rap artists. #Merky includes a summer festival in Ibiza and a record label with two artists currently in development. He had hoped to launch a #Merky TV arm to commission an adaptation of his favourite book, Malorie Blackman’s YA novel ‘Noughts & Crosses,’ but the BBC beat him to the rights. (He will star in the spring 2020 series, his first major acting role.)
He explained that he’s a blend of genres and styles “married” into one man: “UK rap, grime, black music — I’m trying to push those boundaries. I’m trying to make it better than anything that’s come before.”