Stormzy This is What I Mean album review - he’s already the GOAT, now he’s a grown-up


Stormzy’s third album is the first one without his face on the front. The cover image is of a letter on a doormat, as though UK rap’s biggest star has sent a message but isn’t there in person. And that’s how it often feels on what is by far Michael Omari’s most downbeat, intimate collection: he’s stepping aside to allow others to shine, barely noticeable on songs such as Sampha’s Plea and Give It to the Water, where the singing voices of his fellow south Londoners Sampha and Debbie are the main attraction.

The change in tone is a product of lockdown, an enforced pause and recalibration that he needed badly after a rocket-powered ascent that took him from his first top 10 single to a Glastonbury headlining slot in little more than two years. After all that, there’s little need for the thrusting, status-asserting raps that have been so much fun to hear in the past.

That version of Stormzy was present on Mel Made Me Do It, his bragging release from September. It may have looked like his comeback single at the time but it isn’t included here, where the tone is very different. He’s proved he’s the GOAT, so what else does he want to say?

That he’s still hurting from a break-up, mostly. The gossip sites are currently abuzz with speculation about whether he might be back together with his former long-term girlfriend, the presenter Maya Jama. It’s certainly clear from songs such as Need You, with its sophisticated, danceable beats, and Fire + Water, a gospel style ballad that weighs in at more than eight minutes, that he hasn’t moved on. Bad Blood sounds like it has only one intended listener, Stormzy repeating “Can’t you tell I love you girl? It’s obvious,” over soulful female backing vocals.

The other theme is one that has been a constant for him since his rise began: the need for the advancement of black culture as a whole. Here, on My Presidents Are Black, he raps: “Black boy fly, black girl fly, we all fly.”

This album was created mostly at a “music camp” on isolated Osea Island in Essex, with a huge cast list including rapper Ms Banks and US R&B veteran India Arie, and it very much sounds like a team effort. Though the feel is insular and understated, he has an army with him. A show-off no longer, this is the sound of Stormzy the grown-up.