How Stormzy Crafted His Latest Album, ‘This Is What I Mean’
LONDON — Early in 2020, Stormzy thought he knew what kind of album he wanted to make. He wanted it to be “proper hard,” the British rapper said in a recent video interview.
But then the pandemic hit, and “This Is What I Mean,” Stormzy’s recently released third album, ended up being made in a period of stillness when there was nothing to do except “chill, look after my dogs and make an album, and hear my thoughts and listen to God,” he said.
Making the record from this space was a change of pace for Stormzy, 29, born Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. He is now Britain’s highest profile rapper, and has built an ever-growing portfolio of initiatives for Black Britons and other people of color.
Musically, he’s credited with being instrumental in Britain’s revival of grime music, and he was the first solo Black British artist to headline Glastonbury Festival.
But when it came to making “This Is What I Mean,” “I didn’t have my cape on, ” he said. “I was just Mike, just navigating life.” The pandemic meant he had psychic distance from his public persona, and physical distance from the trappings of fame; the resulting album takes the introspection present on his previous projects and digs deeper.
On the video call, Stormzy discussed some of the artists that influenced his making the record. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
‘Marcy Me’ by Jay-Z
“Marcy Me,” from Jay-Z’s 2017 album “4:44,” exemplifies what Stormzy respects most about the New York rapper: his seemingly effortless delivery of effortful penmanship.
“That takes dedication to your craft, and that takes studying your craft,” Stormzy said, “where you are now able to come out and rap at the highest level, and make it look like you just rolled out of bed.”
A line could be drawn between “4:44,” which is, in part, a sonic confessional, and “This is What I Mean,” which is also an exercise in vulnerability. “I feel like with any great art that you consume, I think that it consciously or subconsciously inspires you,” Stormzy said, adding that seeing Jay-Z be so vulnerable “made me feel like, OK, that’s what we’re doing.”
‘All of the Lights’ by Kanye West
The influence of Ye, the scandal-prone artist formerly known as Kanye West, is “unashamedly” present on the titular song on “This Is What I Mean,” Stormzy said.
That track takes cues from “All of the Lights,” off West’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” One of Stormzy’s favorite songs by West, “All of the Lights” is ambitious and baroque, loaded with short interludes from other artists. Stormzy thinks of the song as a painting, and the musicians, producers and instrumentalists the artist’s tools.
“This Is What I Mean” is a similar exercise in ambition. “I’ve made that song with three different producers; I’ve got, like, five or six of my favorite artists on it and we were just painting,” Stormzy said.
Beyoncé’s Live Performances
Stormzy has a rule: If someone discredits Beyoncé’s artistry, “I don’t trust them.”
His performances are often high energy, and feature theatrical moments. At the 2018 Brit Awards, he performed under a rain machine as rows of balaclava-clad men sat behind him, reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” (Similar imagery was also invoked on the cover of his debut record “Gang Signs and Prayer.”)
“There’s no one who has inspired my live show like Beyoncé,” he said. After watching her 2018 Coachella performance ahead of his own headline performance at Wireless Festival, he called his creative director to say they needed to start over.
“When people see my Glasto, they see my tour, I’m like, yeah, that’s me trying to be a fraction of Beyoncé’s live show,” he said.
References to Rachael Anson, Stormzy’s older sister, are littered across his discography. A D.J., Anson has hosted a show on a female-led online radio station and crafted mixes for the likes of Apple Music.
Growing up in South London, Anson not only encouraged his ambitions, but also lent a practical ear when he was starting out. “The only thing that used to irk her about my raps was my flow,” he said. “My sister is the queen of vibes, she is so at one with music.”
Her opinion continues to loom large for him: “Even now when I write, I’m like, aah, Rachael’s going to hear that” and she’s going to love it, Stormzy said.
In Stormzy’s opinion, the singer Frank Ocean is the “most gifted songwriter of my generation.”
Stormzy is a rapper who often sings, and said he has taken cues from the way Ocean’s music shows that “melody doesn’t need to be complicated to be beautiful.”
“He hits pockets of melody that are really sweet to my spirit,” Stormzy said. “I’ve learned that from him, I can use my voice — whatever remit I live in with my vocal ability — to find these sweet pockets of melody.” This is especially clear on two songs on his new album, “Firebabe” and “Holy Spirit,” which Stormzy sings throughout.
‘Growing Over Life’ by Wretch 32
Stormzy is equally likely to rap over a drill beat, spit on a gospel song or croon over a piano: “Excellent rap is not always rooted in the energy and the gangster,” he said. He shares this proclivity with one of his musical heroes, the British rapper Wretch 32, born Jermaine Sinclaire Scott.
Wretch’s refusal to be bound by any of the thematic or sonic restraints that are often found in M.C. culture has informed Stormzy’s approach to music. This is especially true of Wretch’s 2016 album, “Growing Over Life,” which engages with the personal and political treatment of Black people in Britain.
Listening to the record, “I just used to be so blown away,” Stormzy said. “The best rapper in our country is rapping over these beautiful melodies, these beautiful pieces of music.”
Wretch’s influence can be heard on the track “Please,” from “This Is What I Mean.” Backed by a piano, Stormzy is candid about his relationship with his father: “Please Lord give me the strength to forgive my dad / For he is flawed and so am I.”