This Is What I Mean

This Is What I Mean

Stormzy’s third studio album finds the Merky rapper in a whole new headspace. “I started in LA, trying to record the album there, but the pandemic hit, and a few other things,” he tells Apple Music. “Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling the energy of the music I was making—so I came back home with a new plan: to get all of the producers in one place, and record this album there.” Sanctuary was eventually found on Osea Island—an enchanting and secluded haven in Essex—gifting the Londoner fertile ground to plot his third record with handpicked musicians and writers. The result is his most mature—and consciously soulful—offering to date. “This album is also testament to producer Stormz, the kind of Stormzy that people don’t really know,” he says. “One of my skills is being able to produce from an executive view, guiding other musicians towards my vision. I’ve always had the ethos where the best idea wins. So I might want to [record] something, but if there’s someone better for it, I’ll always allow them to do it.” 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 Is What I Mean 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 (“Holy Spirit”), while he employs Sampha as an emotional conduit on a spirited intermission (“Sampha’s Plea”). By the time we reach the stunning closer (“Give It to the Water”), it becomes clear the opportunity to reshape and remold himself in the face of such pain was simply too important to pass up. “I think back to what [co-president of 0207 Def Jam] Twin B told me before [headlining] Glastonbury [in 2019]: ‘As much as it’s Glasto, it’s another show in a park, and you’ve done hundreds of them,’” he says. “And it’s true: Once you kill the size, or the magnitude, of the task, that’s when you allow people to be at their most real and honest.” Below, he takes us through the story of This Is What I Mean, track by track. “Fire + Water” “This track came from my first session with PRGRSHN on my return to London. And it was quite spiritual. The first half is what he made that day—and everything you hear me sing, even the structure of my verse, was put down right at that moment. From here, this song went on a two-year journey. Tendai came along and helped on the transition part, and then we got to Osea Island—where Debbie made ‘Pour Me Water.’ Later I was on tour, listening to the song for ages, and eventually had a lightbulb moment: I realized I needed a transition to get from the beginning of the song to ‘Pour Me Water.’ Even that took six months to figure out the drums and the tempo, but, we got there in the end.” “This is What I Mean” “I made this with Knox Brown and P2J, and it started extremely different to how it ended up. The only thing that’s the same, I guess, is the sparse intro—leading to the drop. P2J had this wicked idea to sample Jacob Collier, and make an insane rhythm out of [layering] his vocals. I’ve always thought that Ms Banks is one of the coldest rappers, I’ve said this to her, I just love her tone. So she killed her bit, and Amaarae sang the melody on it. There's also something in her voice, her style and attitude that’s so sick. Lastly, I wanted a second verse from another rapper, but we went around in circles and it never really moved along. Until Twin went to Ghana and I think he had an idea for Black Sherif to ad-lib me, but Black Sherif heard the riddim, went into the booth, and laid this fucking insane outro.” “Firebabe” This is the second song I made with Debbie—and it started out with George Moore playing some chords. They’re currently making a track that’s one of my favorite songs of all time, I heard it and knew I needed to get with them both. After fiddling with the chords, Debbie and I got down to writing and we came up with this.” “Please” “During this process, I became fascinated with the word ‘please,’ its many meanings and the sincerity of it. It’s a word we use all the time, but I’d never heard it isolated and repeated before. Please is painful, please is desperate…so many things, and it just made me think of what my please would be.” “Need You” “This is probably the only song we had the intention to make before the album. Between myself, Twin, [#Merky A&R] Jermaine Agyako, and Kassa [PRGRSHN], there was this excitement to be making a song that encapsulates the three words we had up on the whiteboard: ‘Afro,’ ‘expensive,’ and ‘royal.’” “Hide & Seek” “Yes, that’s [Nigerian singer] Teni [The Entertainer] on the intro, but it was actually PRGRSHN that came up with that harmony. One of his God-given gifts, as well as being an incredible producer, is he’s an amazing songwriter and melody man.” “My Presidents Are Black” “I had the instrumental for maybe a year and a half. And for ages, I only had the first eight bars down. Everyone would ask when I was writing to it, and it just wasn’t the right time. Because of those bars, it started very intentionally, and I knew, ‘This ain’t the time to chat rubbish.’ Not even being purposely profound or deep, but what that piece of music was telling my spirit: ‘Rap your arse off, but say something.’” “Sampha’s Plea” “In terms of a voice with truth, emotion, and pain—you'll be hard-pressed to find one with more feeling than Sampha’s. I made ‘Please,’ and every time I heard it, I’d think, ‘How amazing would it be to hear Sampha sing this?’ I feel like it would be interesting to see what the word means to other artists, and Sampha is the first artist that I thought of. ‘Please’ feels like a confession booth, or an altar, that you’re just going to with your version. And Sampha came in and did that. It was just beautiful and breathtaking.” “Holy Spirit” “I was in the studio at the time with Dion Wardle [aka ‘Chord Lord’], and I was feeling really, really close to God. All my career, I’ve known Dion, he’s been on all of my albums, and has been the foundation on which I’ve built my songwriting and my melodies—I would sit in a room with him and a mic, he would play chords, and I would just sing to them. I’ve got loads of demos with Dion, beautiful, unfinished songs. So ‘Holy Spirit’ was probably a defining moment in my time working with him. The whole track is just one take of his chords and my melodies, and then I came back in and added lyrics.” “Bad Blood” “This is the only track we created outside of the bubble we created on Osea Island. It’s probably the song I was the most drawn to in a spiritual way. I saw the vision for this and felt it in my spirit, even if a lot of people on my team felt like it was the one [track] that didn’t need to exist on the album.” “I Got My Smile Back” “This is the last track I made for this album. So, at the camp, I asked Jacob [Collier] for two samples, a beautiful R&B one and a dark rap one, and he came back with this a cappella—so beautifully arranged. I didn’t even know what to do at first. I tried to sing, I tried to rap, but it was such a stunning piece of music that I wanted to tread lightly. For this one, I asked the amazing India.Arie to come and sing it. I’ve never worked with such a respected and phenomenal artist, but she approached it with class, grace, and so much service to the music. It was such a pleasure to work with her.” “Give It to the Water” “The only way to end this is by giving it to the water. I’ve bared my whole soul on this album—in terms of doing the work, accountability, forgiving myself and just allowing God to do the rest. I had just returned from Jamaica, which was a very extremely spiritual trip for me. And before we left, we went to the side of the ocean and we gave things away, our fears, our stresses, saying: ‘We’re not taking things back home, we leave those things here.’ In my first session back with Debbie, we got to the hook, trying to figure it out, and I was like, ‘Just give it to the water.’ Debbie asked me what it meant, so I explained that it’s just a beautiful way of saying, ‘Give it to God.’”

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