LONDON — Early in 2020, Stormzy thought he knew what sort of album he desired to make. He wanted it to be “proper hard,” the British rapper said in a recent video interview.
But then the pandemic hit, and “This Is What I Mean,” Stormzy’s recently released third album, ended up being made in a period of stillness when there was nothing to do except “chill, take care of my dogs and make an album, and listen to my thoughts and hearken to God,” he said.
Making the record from this space was a change of pace for Stormzy, 29, born Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. He’s now Britain’s highest profile rapper, and has built an ever-growing portfolio of initiatives for Black Britons and other people of color.
Musically, he’s credited with being instrumental in Britain’s revival of grime music, and he was the primary solo Black British artist to headline Glastonbury Festival.
But when it got here to creating “This Is What I Mean,” “I didn’t have my cape on,” he said. “I used to be just Mike, just navigating life.” The pandemic meant he had psychic distance from his public persona, and physical distance from the trimmings of fame; the resulting album takes the introspection present on his previous projects and digs deeper.
On the video call, Stormzy discussed a few of the artists that influenced his making the record. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
‘Marcy Me’ by Jay-Z
“Marcy Me,” from Jay-Z’s 2017 album “4:44,” exemplifies what Stormzy respects most in regards to the Latest York rapper: his seemingly effortless delivery of effortful penmanship.
“That takes dedication to your craft, and that takes studying your craft,” Stormzy said, “where you are actually capable of come out and rap at the very best level, and make it seem like you simply rolled off the bed.”
A line could possibly be drawn between “4:44,” which is, partly, a sonic confessional, and “That is What I Mean,” which can also be an exercise in vulnerability. “I feel like with any great art that you just devour, I believe that it consciously or subconsciously inspires you,” Stormzy said, adding that seeing Jay-Z be so vulnerable “made me feel like, OK, that’s what we’re doing.”
‘The entire Lights’ by Kanye West
The influence of Ye, the scandal-prone artist formerly generally known as Kanye West, is “unashamedly” present on the titular song on “This Is What I Mean,” Stormzy said.
That track takes cues from “The entire Lights,” off West’s 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Considered one of Stormzy’s favorite songs by West, “The entire Lights” is ambitious and baroque, loaded with short interludes from other artists. Stormzy thinks of the song as a painting, and the musicians, producers and instrumentalists the artist’s tools.
“This Is What I Mean” is an identical exercise in ambition. “I’ve made that song with three different producers; I’ve got, like, 5 or 6 of my favorite artists on it and we were just painting,” Stormzy said.
Beyoncé’s Live Performances
Stormzy has a rule: If someone discredits Beyoncé’s artistry, “I don’t trust them.”
His performances are often high energy, and have theatrical moments. On the 2018 Brit Awards, he performed under a rain machine as rows of balaclava-clad men sat behind him, paying homage to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” (Similar imagery was also invoked on the quilt of his debut record “Gang Signs and Prayer.”)
“There’s nobody who has inspired my live show like Beyoncé,” he said. After watching her 2018 Coachella performance ahead of his own headline performance at Wireless Festival, he called his creative director to say they needed to begin over.
“When people see my Glasto, they see my tour, I’m like, yeah, that’s me attempting to be a fraction of Beyoncé’s live show,” he said.
References to Rachael Anson, Stormzy’s older sister, are littered across his discography. A D.J., Anson has hosted a show on a female-led online radio station and crafted mixes for the likes of Apple Music.
Growing up in South London, Anson not only encouraged his ambitions, but additionally lent a practical ear when he was starting out. “The one thing that used to irk her about my raps was my flow,” he said. “My sister is the queen of vibes, she is so at one with music.”
Her opinion continues to loom large for him: “Even now after I write, I’m like, aah, Rachael’s going to listen to that” and she or he’s going to adore it, Stormzy said.
In Stormzy’s opinion, the singer Frank Ocean is the “most gifted songwriter of my generation.”
Stormzy is a rapper who often sings, and said he has taken cues from the way in which Ocean’s music shows that “melody doesn’t should be complicated to be beautiful.”
“He hits pockets of melody which might be really sweet to my spirit,” Stormzy said. “I’ve learned that from him, I can use my voice — whatever remit I live in with my vocal ability — to search out these sweet pockets of melody.” This is very clear on two songs on his recent album, “Firebabe” and “Holy Spirit,” which Stormzy sings throughout.
‘Growing Over Life’ by Wretch 32
Stormzy is equally prone to rap over a drill beat, spit on a gospel song or croon over a piano: “Excellent rap will not be all the time rooted within the energy and the gangster,” he said. He shares this proclivity with considered one of his musical heroes, the British rapper Wretch 32, born Jermaine Sinclaire Scott.
Wretch’s refusal to be certain by any of the thematic or sonic restraints which might be often present in M.C. culture has informed Stormzy’s approach to music. This is very true of Wretch’s 2016 album, “Growing Over Life,” which engages with the non-public and political treatment of Black people in Britain.
Listening to the record, “I just was once so blown away,” Stormzy said. “The very best rapper in our country is rapping over these beautiful melodies, these beautiful pieces of music.”
Wretch’s influence might be heard on the track “Please,” from “This Is What I Mean.” Backed by a piano, Stormzy is candid about his relationship along with his father: “Please Lord give me the strength to forgive my dad/For he’s flawed and so am I.”