Photo credit: Adama Jollah
One of the world’s favorite grime performers and songwriters, Stormzy is finally back on the scene with his first album release since 2020’s Heavy Is the Head, titled This Is What I Mean. An eagerly anticipated album ahead of his sadly cancelled Australasian tour, it’s yet another lyrical masterpiece of a commentary. This Is What I Mean comes across as an intensely haunting and personal piece with a backdrop of heartbreak at its core – it’s Stormzy’s most reflective and intimate collection of tracks yet.
From his 2017 debut album Gang Signs & Prayer to Heavy is the Head, Stormzy has spent the past few years gaining intense recognition for his style, political activism outside of his music, and the power behind his lyrics. By This Is What I Mean, Stormzy has cemented himself as one to keep watching out for as time cycles forward and an artist whose star power is only rising.
Produced by a myriad of individuals and featuring songwriting and vocal credits from artists such as Ms Banks, Nao and Black Sherif, critics have already hailed this as Stormzy’s best work yet, alongside being a mastery of collaboration. Recorded on Osea Island, England, during a series of music camps, it’s described as an intimate love letter to music. One of the more powerful analyses by David Smyth of the UK Evening Standard was right when he summarized the two main themes as being a recent breakup but also Stormzy striving for “the advancement of black culture as a whole.” This Is What I Mean is true to Stormzy’s origins, just levelled up in this new, primarily softer format.
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The album opener, ‘Fire and Water,’ is starkly symbolic, moving and scattered, with religious and natural references. Split into two parts – aptly, ‘fire’ and ‘water’, it uses the theme of love in many of its forms, including as a ‘match’, a ‘drought’ and the full-circle ending of a relationship when it ‘fizzles out.’ Stormzy effortlessly incorporates this natural imagery to trace the course of an intimate relationship. While there are a few moments of his trademark, lightning-quick rapping, it’s a slow emotional ballad that is the sonic opposite of HITH’s ‘Big Michael’ and clearly establishes the vibe.
The second track is the titular and is a self-referential, fiery piece, as he notes, “this ain’t the same man whose head was heavy.” It comes across as transformative, and an allusion to his ongoing musical journey, the parting rap here is one of the album’s standout moments. He makes various shout outs to his fellow UK musicians, including Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles, in the lyrics, and this – alongside the many features on This Is What I Mean, is a meaningful nod to his belief in the collective power of music and joint influence.
One of the most romance-tinged tracks on the album is ‘Firebabe.’ Speculated to be about his past relationship with UK presenter Maya Jama, a high-profile experience that lasted from 2015 – 2019, it’s an ode to love at first sight. The crooning chorus includes “her eyes took away my breath / and that’s when I knew she was mine till the end.” Stormzy’s publicly reflected on this past relationship in interviews, and ‘Firebabe’ makes it clear that even though the pair have gone their separate ways, that first interaction is still a unique but nostalgic memory. He describes it with Genius as being “about that first spark”, and that’s the sparkling energy we get on this track.
‘Firebabe’ is also a bit of a different song in that Stormzy is openly experimental with, in his words, “using melody” and singing rather than rapping. In a sense, this contributes to the vulnerability and honesty of the song, further increasing its poignancy.
Transitioning to ‘Please’, listeners receive another multifaceted, yearning moment. Described by Stormzy as confessional, it includes many famous pop culture references, including Meghan Markle. ‘Please’ is essentially a transformative, therapeutic listing of the word’s many potential uses. Everything comes through, from his relationship with his father to the confusion and juxtaposing ideals that come with fame, nothing is off the cards.
‘Need You’ brings a second openly romantic moment, further expanding upon the exciting experience of lust and the beginnings of passionate love. Noting “it’s hard to hide that I need you baby”, the track represents both an attraction from afar and wanting what you can’t have, as reflected in verse two. Stormzy uses the fact that feelings are complex to convey differentiating emotions in the track’s short course, making listeners reflect on the meaning behind it from multiple angles. Offering muted trumpets over Afrobeat-inspired rhythms, it’s a masterpiece.
The toughness of being in the public eye, among paparazzi and rolling the dice on relationships are all on the cards in the tenth track, ‘Bad Blood.’ (And not Taylor’s kind – though the issues do often arise in her music). The instrumentals are gauzy and understated, with the melody carried by a stunning confection of warped vocals.
Track seven, ‘My Presidents are Black,’ is yet another racially powerful piece of lyricism. Rapping “if you rob them for their dreams / of course, I’m gonna put a target on your back” and following up with “cause when you f**k around and take the piss / that could be my baby bro or baby sis.” ‘My Presidents are Black’ is ultimately definable by its themes of resilience and community.
Heavy is the Head gets a second similar epilogue with track 9, ‘Holy Spirit’, a nod to Stormzy’s Christian faith and relationship with religion. Almost a reprise to ‘Blinded by Your Grace,’ it’s another example of his ability to draw narrative parallels across his various eras, past and present.
This fresh track is cut from a humbler, more reserved feeling, with a mournful, yet accepting “you gave me peace and purpose / even when I don’t deserve it.” Stormzy emphasizes his journey and ongoing exploration with faith, which has grown stronger with time if the words are anything to go by. In meaningful preaching, listeners receive an intimate look into its importance and its role in his life. Directly noting critical scripture moments such as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the ‘Holy Spirit’ is a moving dedication to the power of faith.
‘Sampha’s Plea’ is an aptly named song, with his feature giving added depth and warmth to the tune. Stormzy imagined him on the track, bringing his signature truth and vibrant energy. It’s almost entirely him, with barely any aspect of Stormzy himself except for the songwriting accreditations. However, it’s one of the best moments on the album, coming as imploring and purposeful. Stormzy’s dedication to giving Sampha his fully own feature shows how his partnerships give them ample space to breathe their personal touch of light into his record.
The intimate vulnerability threading through this startling album is again spotlighted with ‘I Got My Smile Back.’ Stormzy hasn’t openly addressed mental health much previously in music, and while the subject matter here is slightly darker, the message is upbeat and definitively hopeful. Comparing the symbols of storms, rain and eventual colour in the chorus, ‘I Got My Smile Back’ serves as a battle cry and a message of hope in this penultimate piece. Stormzy described the song as ‘one of his favourites’ on the album to Genius recently, and it’s not hard to see why, as listeners get a personal dive into some of his past struggles in the emotive lyricism.
With the closing song, ‘Give It to The Water,’ we finally come full circle at the album’s conclusion, shifting back to the symbolisms listeners experienced in the opening moments, it’s performed predominantly by Debbie Ehirim until the last verse. It’s soft, mellow and Stormzy ends this beautifully constructed album with a lyrical emphasis on moving forward, healing and letting go.
Fans have waited long for this epilogue to Heavy Is the Head, and it hasn’t disappointed on release. With the symbolism, compelling lyricism, and commanding yet softer tone than Stormzy’s past work, we can only hope he finally makes it back to the shores of Aotearoa for a live performance soon and can’t wait to see what he might do next.