Can Stormzy, an Evangelist for British Grime, Seduce the U.S.? – The New York Times

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The ambitious 26-year-old M.C. has a new album, “Heavy Is the Head,” and is ready to spread his gospel.
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LONDON — 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 organized 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 U.K. garage (it is distinct from rap, and its vocalists are known as M.C.s). While grime can be powered by anti-establishment fury, its M.C. 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-energized 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 M.C.s 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 United States, 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 U.S.”
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 the Labour politician David Lammy about racism and the country’s criminal justice system. He said the ambition of the set was inspired by Beyoncé’s landmark Coachella performance. Even so, he said that he has yet to peak as a showman.
“I’ve set the bar,” Stormzy said. “It gives me boundaries to soar over.”
Before the trip to his school, Stormzy was blasting West’s “The Life of Pablo” at his spacious home in a leafy area of southwest London. The record’s thick bass reverberated off the marble and chrome décor. “I wanted it to be very homely,” he said of the residence. The dozens of high-end liquor bottles lining a mirrored bar said otherwise. “But it’s ended up looking like a bit of a bachelor pad,” he added.
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&B, staccato hip-hop beats, radiant gospel and the love of pop that he broadcast with a 2014 Justin Bieber cover. Reliable hitmakers — Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay), Frank Dukes (Lorde, Drake), Mark “Spike” Stent (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga) — fill the credits and give the LP a dynamic gloss, in a clear sign of Stormzy’s expanding ambitions. (Weeks of sessions with Pharrell Williams, however, didn’t pan out.)
“Stormzy’s right up there with the best of people I’ve ever worked with,” said the producer Fraser T. Smith, who has collaborated with Adele and Sam Smith, and worked with Stormzy since “Gang Signs & Prayer.” “He’s brave, unapologetic and forward thinking. A true visionary.” As far as breaking through to America, Smith is unconvinced it’s a necessary goal: “Rap music is parochial, and there’s power in that.”
Stormzy’s determination to move his music beyond grime has been treated with scorn by some older M.C.s. “They want grime culture to be protected,” he said blithely, while tucking into a meal prepared by a private chef. “They don’t want the mainstream coming in and watering it down. To them I’m an annoyance; a stain.”
The title “Heavy Is the Head” evokes the burden Stormzy has accepted as an artist willing to stick out his neck — to support black artists, to speak out about subjects like racial tensions in Britain’s police and tabloid media, or the government’s handling of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. On the moody artwork he appears shirtless, holding the stab-proof Union Jack vest he wore onstage at Glastonbury, which was designed by the artist Banksy. “When Banksy put the vest on me/It felt like God was testing me,” he raps on the album in a near-whisper.
“I know what I stand for, I know what kind of artist I am,” he said. “But on the flip side of that I think, ‘Bruv, why me?’ I’m just Stormz, this black kid from south London. In Britain today, how did I get here?”
Growing up in the bustling, diverse London neighborhood of Croydon with a Ghanaian mother and three siblings, Stormzy (born Michael Omari) didn’t have much spare cash. Grime became a hobby at age 11, inspired by seeing established M.C.s like Skepta and Kano on the pivotal British TV station ChannelU. Street life was tougher; by 17, Stormzy had been in court multiple times, once on a weapons possession charge (he narrowly escaped jail time).
While driving in south London, he pointed out a street where he was stabbed. “We used to go to parties, but we were never going to party,” he said. “We were waiting for trouble. That gives you a certain level of anxiety that you’re too young to process; it just feels like a thrill.”
In 2013, he took an apprenticeship at an oil refinery in the coastal British town Southampton. But buoyed by seeing the London rap duo Krept & Konan win a MOBO award — a British honor for achievements in “music of black origin” — later that year (he knew Krept from school), he quit his job to focus on music. By the end of 2014, after a stellar run of viral songs, he was being hailed as grime’s heir apparent.
Still, shades of self-doubt and mental anguish creep into Stormzy’s music; at times, its themes are reminiscent of the introspective poetry of the grime pioneer Dizzee Rascal. Stormzy’s vulnerability is poignantly clear on the self-flagellating new ballad “Lessons,” in which he addresses rumors surrounding his recent split from the British TV presenter and D.J. Maya Jama. “I wasn’t unfaithful,” he said. “I disrespected her. Maybe this is me taking the punches because I feel I deserve them.” His eyes seemed to grow glassy. “Bruv, she was the greatest person I’ve ever met.”
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 in advance of Britain’s Dec. 12 election. (The result was an upswing of 236 percent from the number of people who registered the day before.) “It feels like 100,000 people shouting at me and throwing stuff at me,” he said of receiving negative comments, looking downcast. “I feel like I do the superhuman thing, and then the human kicks in.”
“You start thinking, ‘Was that even smart?’” he added. “But throughout all of that anxiety and fear, I have so much purpose that it doesn’t matter.”
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. “Stormzy absolutely occupies a space of his own,” said the British author Candice Carty-Williams, who spoke at a #Merky Books event last year. “He’s using his power and his influence to create networks and sustainable support for young black people. I haven’t seen anyone of his stature do anything like this.”
While he’s known for speaking bluntly about politics and his emotions, Stormzy is also a prankster — he once surprised a random fan by showing up at his house to watch a soccer show — and lighthearted lyrics infuse his music with a sense of joy. The “Heavy Is the Head” highlight “Rachael’s Little Brother” is a pop culture smorgasbord that pinballs between references to “Dragon’s Den” (the British version of “Shark Tank”), C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” book series, and the foundational grime crew Roll Deep, set to a pitch-shifted sample of the British millennium-era rap and R&B outfit Big Brovaz.
That’s black British music,” he said of the group. “If I’m going to be a proper ambassador for black Britishness and black British music, I can’t just keep it at grime and rap. It’s more multifaceted than that.”
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 favorite 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.) “You know how Jay-Z has Roc Nation Sports, management, everything?” he asked earlier in the day. “One day I want to have that.”
He explained that he’s a blend of genres and styles “married” into one man: “U.K. rap, grime, black music — I’m trying to push those boundaries. I’m trying to make it better than anything that’s come before.”