“I think I’m Kanye mixed with Donny Hathaway,” raps Stormzy on the title track of his third album, This is What I Mean. There’s definitely a touch of the troubled West’s ambitious alchemy to the track, which pirouettes from a pretty piano intro (think child’s ballet rehearsal) into an elating, bass-blast of braggadocio, given dramatic ballast with operatic backing vocals.
But there’s really more of Hathaway to Croydon-born grime star. Not just because of the jazzy warmth with which this album leans into its soulful balladry. It’s there in the rich, stable sincerity of his vocals. Like Hathaway, 29-year-old Michael Owou Jr has a voice that can reach through the darkness and steady your heart. Even if you didn’t know that Stormzy’s the kind of national treasure who invests in scholarship schemes to support Black kids through Cambridge University, his decency feels embedded in his frequency. It's backed up here by lyrics that feel emotionally accountable. Take “Hide & Seek”. On this gently melodic track, he is searching for forgiveness from a woman who's “good for me like collard greens”. The older he gets, the better the conversational-confessional flow of his rapping, which allows him to stroll through a 10-minute bragathon like “Mel Made Me Do It” without breaking a sweat or losing the listener’s attention. He raps about trips to Dubai and giving up weed like he’s sitting beside you at a London bus stop.
Stormzy recorded this album on the Essex island of Osea, a flat little oval slab of estuary mud off a coast lined by a mile of static caravans and suburban red-brick terraces. But its unassuming sea-level geography is regularly offset by stunning (and fast-moving) skies and the kind of intoxicating pink-gold sunsets you could pour over ice. It also – rather unexpectedly – boasts the world-class studio that lures the likes Rihanna to its grey-slop shores. “This is what I Mean” reflects all that in the way it puts Stormzy’s English vernacular afloat on a wider stage. Many of the tracks share songwriting credits with Jacob Collier and you can often hear the inventive British jazz musician’s influence in the staggered layering of vocals and delayed echo of the beat. Although much of the music is keyboard-based (with Dion Wardle delivering a relaxed elegance), the romance is heightened by unabashed swells of cello, flute, trumpet and a fantastic gospel choir.
He could have dialled up a red carpet’s worth of A-list contributors (and did in the video to “Mel”, calling in everyone form Usain Bolt to Louis Theroux), but Stormzy uses hungrier, lesser-known vocal collaborators throughout. Sampha lends a yearning croon to “Sampha’s Plea” (“please don’t leave me like this”). South Londoner Debbie Ehirim (who signed to Def Jam earlier this year) adds sweet (but compromising) vocals to “Firebabe”, an intimate love song a delayed echo in the percussion lifted straight out of James Blake’s playbook. And she takes the confident lead on the album’s stunning prayer of a closer, “Give it To the Water”.
He addresses his breakup with Maya Jama on the sorrowful “Bad Blood”. The political “war cry” (in his words) comes with “My Presidents Are Black”, a trappy celebration of Britain’s Black community on which he challenges the white patriarchy. “Tell Michael Gove that we got somethin’ for your nose… Didn’t know we’re tryna implement our history through the schools?” He also alerts us to the grim threat of EDL marches on “I Found My Smile”, while rising above bigotry to find inner peace.
Blues legend Mahalia Jackson famously said that when she finished singing a blues song, she still had the blues, but after singing gospel, she had hope. Stormzy repeatedly affirms his Christian faith throughout this record. But you don’t need to share that to feel his righteous optimism for Black Britain and his musical generosity. The artist who took his name from the darkest weather has found “there’s sun behind my rain”.