Hip-hop has always had a dynamic relationship with the iconography of “crowns”, the image symbolic of kingship. Like other prominent hip-hop archetypes of dominance such as the boss, top dog, or head honcho, the crown has been used as a statement of an artist’s status in their field, sometimes generational and sometimes transcendental. One of the most iconic pieces of visual imagery in the genre is Biggie’s King of New York photo. Some crowns are hoisted upon an artist by the listening community, and some are claimed in a show of confidence – or arrogance.
Stormzy has certainly achieved much since his debut album Gang Signs and Prayer released in 2017. From professional milestones such as having the first grime album to go #1 on the UK charts and headlining Glastonbury Festival last year, to having troves of articles written on his political activism which included endorsements for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the recent elections, it makes sense that such a crown holds significant weight. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” is an evolved version of the original quote from Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part 2. King Henry IV, while ruminating on the hardships of his position, says “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” As both material object and as a symbol, the crown creates in its wearer a duality between power and responsibility.
Both the historical Henry IV and the character of Shakespeare’s play were usurpers, meaning that they overthrew the previous ruler and therefore claimed their power by conquest, as opposed to the naturalized divine right of kings. That made them uneasy about their ability to rule, adding to the “weight” of their crown. Stormzy is a bit of a usurper as well. A UK rapper who refused to let the boundaries of grime music confine his sound, Stormzy has achieved unprecedented success by showcasing his charisma and genre versatility. That has created animosity between him and some members of the grime community. Most notably is the “godfather of grime”, rapper Wiley, who has argued that Stormzy has sold out his grime roots for pop stardom, treating grime as a stepping stone of sorts to achieve broader recognition.
It is clear that Stormzy wears a crown, but what is he the king of? Grime? UK rap? Black British celebrity? I find it provocative that Stormzy quite explicitly claims that he reigns supreme over grime while crafting a great album that could in no way be classified as a “grime album”. There are several levels of tension that drive the dynamism of the album. Perhaps no other song on the album addresses this tension as the quasi-title track “Crown”. In the first verse, Stormzy prays, mentions the strain on his relationship with his mother caused by fame, and expresses ambivalence about being deemed a role model for “young black youth”. Then, in the second verse, he speaks about the attacks he’s faced for trying to give back to the youth, most notably with a scholarship for black British students. While Stormzy is ambivalent about labels and expectations being placed upon him, he is more than willing to put his money where his mouth is and blend his music career with active attempts for social change.
Stormzy truly showcases his versatility on Heavy Is the Head. Some versatile album performances from music artists ring hollow; an artist may seem like an empty chameleon trying but failing to imitate current trends. Or, the artist tries to fit too many sounds and styles on a single project and ends up creating a ball of sonic mush. Stormzy has avoided these and other pitfalls, demonstrating a knack for choosing complementary collaborators (especially on tracks such as “One Second” and “Own It”), singing his hooks (“Crown” and “Do Better”), and making feel-good anthems (“Rainfall” and “Superheroes”). The album is filled with quick changes in vibe; every two or three tracks changes in style or mood. That can make for a jerky ride when listening all the way through, but I didn’t find the choice in tracklisting to fundamentally take away from the album experience.
It took me a couple listens to confirm, but I’m more drawn to the tracks where Stormzy is crooning – about his personal tribulations or inspirational ballads – than where he’s spitting a stream of spit-fire raps. One of my favorite tracks is the immensely soothing interlude “Don’t Forget to Breathe” ft. YEBBA. There’s also the beat switch into a song-rap bridge on “Rachel’s Little Brother”. Stormzy is quite astute. While I don’t know how he would fare as a full-on singer, he’s good enough to have heavy sprinkles throughout the album that were some of his most since and quality performances.
There are times when his raps can come off a bit trite and even corny. The concept behind “Lessons” rings a bit hollow. It’s supposed to be a soul-baring apology to his recent ex-girlfriend, yet it’s nudged in between songs like the titular single “Vossi Bop” where he talks about giving another dude’s girlfriend a facial. And with corny lines like “I knew a woman more wonderful than a Disney one,” I’m not sure that song was the best move. Rarely, however, do I have these sentiments when he’s singing.
This album gets better with successive listens. I still think the album is a bit too long. It’s not that long albums can’t be good, but the bar today is much higher for an album to keep a listener’s attention. At the same time, the length felt necessary for Stormzy to get everything off his chest. From career milestones to addressing grime beefs, to expressing the precarious position he finds himself in as a spokesperson for a generation of black British youth, a shorter album wouldn’t do justice to these experiences.