This Is What I Mean
Stormzy’s third studio album finds the Merky rapper in a whole new headspace. Recorded at a writing camp on Osea Island, Essex, the retreat gifted the Londoner fertile ground to plot the record with hand-picked musicians and writers. The result is his most mature—and consciously soulful—offering to date. 2019’s Heavy Is the Head saw Stormzy rise to the bait of his detractors, caught between echoing his credentials as the crown prince of grime and a burning desire to explore beyond the sound he rose from. Three years on, This Is What I Mean leaves that headspace behind for a solid and refreshing exploration. “Remember when they told us just to rap?” he asks on “My Presidents Are Black”. Whoever they might be, they’re completely disregarded here as Stormzy stakes his ultimate claim to transcend all limits of the past. In many ways, the gentle, soul-searching sound of this LP should come as no surprise. After all, Stormzy records often attempt to integrate R&B and gospel. But this release has a far more explicit through line: a desire to interrogate the experience of losing love. Speaking from the heart—aided by a string of songwriters (Jacob Collier, Tems) and top production talent (P2J, Prgrshn)—Stormzy finds the words for heartfelt ballads (“Firebabe”) and poignant duets (on “Holy Spirit”), while he employs Sampha as an emotional conduit on a spirited intermission (“Sampha’s Plea”). There’s no room for moshpit anthems here, save for a war cry on the exhilarating “My Presidents Are Black”—where he quotes Bible verses alongside Jay-Z lines. This Is What I Mean illustrates how Stormzy navigated the waters of personal crisis: by driving on directly through the eye of the storm. Washing away pain is no easy task. By the time we reach the stunning closer (“Give It to the Water”), it becomes clear the opportunity to reshape and remould himself in the face of such pain was simply too important to pass up.