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Stormzy ‘This Is What I Mean review’: soul-baring greatness from a megastar

On his third album, Stormzy experiments with new sounds and shows his personal side. The results are stunning.

4.0 rating

By Emmanuel Onapa

Stormzy (Picture: Handout)

On the eve of releasing his third album This Is What I Mean, Stormzy shared an emotional message to his fans.

Posting a handwritten letter to fans on Instagram, he said: “I pray you listen to the album with an open heart and if you hate it after I promise to God I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m just grateful that you listened with openness.”

His apprehension is understandable. This Is What I Mean marks a significant departure from his sound so far. Crafted on Essex’s Osea Island during a ‘music camp’, here is an album where grime is largely ditched for powerful cuts of soul,R&B and personal lyrics that take stock of his journey so far.

But there is no reason at all to hate it. Across 12 tracks, Stormzy’s latest album provides a deeply personal and powerful reflection of the tranquility, joy and blissfulness rooted both in his Christian faith and as a black man navigating Britain. Anybody who listens to the album can immediately sense the passion and his love for the new soul-led direction that constantly shines through.

On opener ‘Fire + Water’, he sets the personal tone for the rest of the album by offering an insight into his vulnerabilities. “We got that champagne love, don’t let it fizzle out, I know I brought a world of pain you could’ve did without,” he calmly sings.

Another theme that spreads across the album is the importance and position of Black British culture in a contemporary society. Over laid-back beats on ‘My Presidents Are Black’, he raps: “We are the needle movers, we are the table shakers. They gotta move around us ’cause nothin’ moves without us.” It continues with a shout-out to to Dave, acknowledging their tough journeys to secure the prime prime positions they are both in: “Cause we made it through the fire.

It’s also interesting to note that the album cover – a white envelope sitting on a brown doormat in front of a black door – marks the first one without his face on the front. It gives the impression that the album’s message is bigger than Stormzy alone – a mantra reflected in the moments when he provides a space for other talented artists to take the stage. Sampha’s Plea sees Mercury Prize winner Sampha shining across an entire track, while newcomer Debbie shows off her powerful vocals on ‘Firebabe’. There is also cameos across the album from Afropop stars including Ayra Starr, Tems and Amaarae.

Stormzy also doesn’t waver from his gospel undertones in his album too, with ‘Holy Spirit’ leaning heavy into his worship and love for God, executed exquisitely enough that it’s hard even for non-believers not to feel a sense of serenity when listening to the song. His vocals on the track, a world away from grime, also provide a new refreshing lens for all to view him. 

It’s this new direction that comes across so successfully. Stormzy’s traditional fans may have perhaps expected furious grime bars, but what he presents here is a direct reflection of the moment that he is in and there is nothing calculated about it. It is the sound of an artist simply being their true authentic self as they reflect on their remarkable life so far. For Stormzy, it is a huge step forward and one of the year’s best albums.