Stormzy – ‘Heavy Is The Head’ review: a broad-reaching, genre-buckling romp
On his second album, Stormzy wants to do everything, all the time, better than everyone else. But he also reminds us that he is part of something bigger
Written by Carl Anka for NME
From its title to the artwork that depicts Stormzy holding his Banksy designed vest while adorned with a crown of gold, the messaging of ‘Heavy Is The Head’ is clear: Stormzy’s second album is an exploration of a man on the cusp of greatness.
After 2017’s ‘Gangs Signs and Prayer’, and this year’s Glastonbury Pyramid Stage headline slot, ‘Heavy is the Head’ is 54 minutes of Stormzy properly realising his talents and deciding what to do with them next.
And, apparently, what Stormzy wants to do is… everything. All the time. Better than everyone else.
‘Heavy Is The Head’ is a broad-reaching, genre-buckling romp that – while sometimes overreaching – never gets dull or overstays its welcome. Stormzy raps, sings, brags, hurts and apologises with force throughout the album. “Plus I’m multi-talented it’s like I’m Donald Glover / Like what the fuck you talking about? I’m Rachael’s little brother”, he raps on ‘Rachael’s Little Brother’. He’s a man who has the power and influence to do nearly anything, but constantly reminds us that he is part of something bigger.
Stormzy isn’t aiming to be the biggest name in grime, or UK rap, or indeed even be one of the biggest UK artists; ‘Heavy Is The Head; is him trying to go for everything and become the sort of culture-defining talent that only pops up a couple of times in a generation.
He nearly pulls it off, recruiting nine different writer-producers to help him craft this 16-track album, which was also recorded in 16 different studios. ‘Heavy is the Head’’s eclectic audio texture gives every track a commanding crispness. This is a big album packed full of church choirs, thumping bass and high strings, that, admittedly, sometimes threatens to buckle under the weight of its own ambition. Not many men in the world can sing“Lighters in the air when you’re lighting up the rave” with Ed Sheeran and Burna Boy on the wilfully commercial radio favourite ‘Own It’, before immediately throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the UK grime and rap scene with “If you ain’t got more than five top 10s then I don’t wanna hear no chat about charting” on ‘Wiley Flow’. But throughout ‘Heavy Is The Head’, Stormzy reminds us he is not like many artists.
If Michael Omari decides he wants to try something – like sample a beloved CBBC programme at the end of one of his songs – Michael Omari is going to make sure he picks one of the best,Tracey Beaker, and uses it to close out the moving 14th track ‘Superheroes’. One of the most inspiring figures in modern Britain, reminding you of a show in which people grew up in a care home. He’s a King who always remembers the people.
But it’s not all braggadocio wit from UK music’s new King. ‘Heavy Is The Head’ also sees Stormzy wrestles with his place upon the throne. Penultimate song ‘Lessons’, sees Stormzy open up about his break-up with ex Maya Jama. The milage in someone admitting culpability for the end of a relationship on a (soon to be) Platinum-selling album may depend on the listener, but lines such as “You cannot imagine how I’m sorry, man, I’m showing you / Now I haven’t even got the luxury of knowing you” do stay in the memory.
It’s remarkable that at point in his career, where Stormzy can reasonably assert himself as the Next Big Thing and the greatest to ever do it, he takes time to admit there’s a pressure with the position. “It’s not anti-white it’s pro-black,” he wearily raps on ‘Crown’ before the lines, “They’re sayin’ I’m the voice of young black youth / I say ‘yeah, cool’ and bun my zoot”.
As Stormzy sings, ”Spend time in my sneaks or spend a night in my thoughts / You walk a mile in these, I walk a mile in yours” on ‘Do Better’, it emerges that there’s an interesting tension on the album: there is a man called Michael Omari, and there is an artist called Stormzy who lives six inches in front of his face. Both men want to move the culture in new and interesting ways, there’s an ever-so-slight variation as to how they want to do. Both men, though, wish to do it with quality and integrity.
It would be remiss of us to leave out from this review the line, “I am not the poster boy for mental health / I need peace of mind, I need to centre self / The cover of the NME that shit made me resent myself / There’s people tryna spread the word and people that pretend to help”, which appears on ‘One Second’. Stormzy’s uneasy relationship with the media and its depiction of Black British youths is a constant through line of ‘HITH’. It’s no coincidence he has spent recent months setting up a scholarship for black students at Cambridge, as well as his own publishing imprint at Penguin. Stormzy got to tell his own story, and now wants to help others who look like him tell theirs.
Stormzy came out swinging for his second album – it’s big, it’s broad and it is mostly brilliant. “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”, wrote William Shakespeare. After listening to this new album, we’d say Stormzy is handling things just fine.
Release date: December 13
Record label: Atlantic Records UK