In August, the British grime star Stormzy was fresh off his first U.K. Number One (“Vossi Bop”), a historic headlining set at Glastonbury and was climbing the U.K. Singles chart again. The song was a remix of “Take Me Back to London,” a collaboration with Ed Sheeran, but it wouldn’t reach Number One without some controversy. As it rose, Wiley, one of grime’s originators and most revered figures, sent out a series of since-deleted subtweets: “I’m sick of people using grime to look good for two minutes” and “Anyone who uses us and our sounds are culture vultures.” A joke about breaking out his “guitar and foot pedal” made the subject of Wiley’s ire clear (though he also leveled the same cultural appropriation accusations at Drake). In a follow-up interview, Wiley doubled down and said Sheeran had made things difficult for him back when they collaborated in 2011, a claim the pop star denied.
Stormzy, for his part, responded first on Twitter — “No Wiley you know Ed been doing this from early, been a real one from early, you can’t question that… You know I love you and respect you brother but nah don’t do that” — and then on record. Rap battles and clashes are a key part of grime’s DNA, but Stormzy did the furthest thing from drop a diss track: “Wiley Flow,” released a few weeks after the dust-up, was a blistering homage that opened with a sample of Wiley himself discussing his legacy, and later found Stormzy lovingly interpolating two classic Wiley tracks, “Bad Em Up” and “Nightbus Dubplate.”
“Wiley Flow” now appears on Stormzy’s new album, Heavy Is the Head, and caps off a telling three-song sequence that includes a song called “Pop Boy,” featuring Aitch (who also appeared on the “Take Me Back to London” remix), and another tune called, “Own It,” featuring Burna Boy and, yes, Ed Sheeran.
“I did that so specifically,” Stormzy tells Rolling Stone on the phone from the U.K. “As much as I’m a grime MC, I’m also gospel, I’m R&B, I’m pop and I’m soul. I’m all these different things. Becoming a mainstream prospect, I’ve always known that that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with underground and authenticity, just in terms of how people perceive things. But I’ve always believed in myself enough to know I can do it all.”
Heavy Is the Head follows Stormzy’s 2017 debut Gang Signs & Prayer and finds him contemplating a meteoric rise that began with YouTube freestyles over classic grime beats and hit its first true peak this summer when he became the first black-British solo act to headline Glastonbury. At the same time, he’s emerged as a potent political voice, pushing for greater inclusion for people of color in Britain, launching scholarship programs and even a publishing house, Merky Books, for young writers of colors. Stormzy was active in the run-up to the U.K. general election, a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, who ultimately fell to the Tories and Boris Johnson Thursday (it’s a coincidence, he says, that Heavy Is the Head was released the day after the election). Speaking a week earlier of a possible Johnson win, Stormzy says, “I got asked that earlier and it was the first time it dawned on me that it could become a reality; it’s not a campaign anymore. I’ve got to be hopeful.”
Stormzy has navigated all this with a singular savvy, endearing himself to mainstream audiences without neglecting or losing the support of grime diehards and its forebears. Grime itself is only two decades old, and arguably one of the last hyper-localized styles of folk music to emerge before the internet decentralized everything. Stormzy knows its history well; it’s his history as well. At Glastonbury, he stood onstage and read a list of names — 65 artists who’d either paved the way for him or were standing alongside him at the front of grime’s second generation.
“I’ve reaped the benefit of what a lot of people went through,” he says. “It’s not even a duty; it’s a natural thing where because of how I’ve gotten here, it’s only right that I let people know I could only exist because of this culture and these people that came before.”
How was making Heavy Is the Head different from Gang Signs & Prayer?
GS&P was me in the studio with [producer] Fraser T. Smith for 10 months — I was in one place, making all the musical decisions, working on every phrase. This time, it’s been almost the total opposite. I’ve left the nest and gone all over the place. GS&P was loads of different producers, but I brought them all into Fraser. This time, I went out in the world and collected different things from different producers, and I’ve had to figure out the different flavors and styles and sounds that are gonna be married with my truth to make a brilliant and honest album.
In terms of beat selection, how are the two albums different?
I wanted it to be a true musical reflection of everything I’m feeling, everything I stand for and all the stories I have to tell right now. And to me that’s always going to mean a vast palette because I like to think I’ve got a vast personality. I’m not just a hard-hitting rapper. I like beautiful songs and beautiful melody. I’ve never gone into the studio with an intention that’s like, “We need to make this body of work.” The only way I gave myself a palette is, Fraser and I came up with some words to describe how we wanted things to go. There’s a track “Rachael’s Little Brother” — one of the words was “expensive,” which is a bit random. Not expensive in terms of money, just in terms of that classy, skilled, catching-all-the-pockets, brilliant flows, that Rick Ross, that Nas, that Kendrick, that Jay-Z, that expensive rap.
How do you think you improved as a songwriter, singer and rapper between these two albums?
I was just saying, be bigger and better in everything you do. If you’re gonna spray a lyric, let it be “Wiley Flow.” When I listen to “Wiley Flow” in my humvee, I feel like I’m listening to one of the most skilled MCs in the country and the world. I found all the pockets, all the flows, I was rapping at a level I haven’t rapped at. Even down to my melodies and my singing — it’s not just about singing for the sake of melody. It’s about, how can I use my voice? I’ve got a deep voice, I love sweet R&B tones, so how do I use my voice to the best of its ability? It’s not about trying to hit some crazy high note; it’s about staying within this certain key, this certain pocket and keeping it pure and focused.
What’s your writing process like?
I treat my music like work. You won’t come to the studio and see 10 girls, loads of alcohol and a thousand people in there. When I come to make music, I come to really make music. I’ll do a one to eight o’clock, go home, get a good sleep, wake up, walk my dog and then come back to the studio.
Do you find yourself rewriting verses and editing?
I don’t tend to rewrite verses, because I always like to think I’ve written with so much detail and care, but it can take me ages to write. There’s a celebration of, “Oh, he wrote this in 10 seconds.” But I celebrate myself for taking my time. I’m not just gonna sit there and rhyme in some words. I’m very hell-bent on saying something and not wasting a lyric on a rhyme just to rhyme. It has to make perfect sense.
Has launching Merky Books and working with other young authors helped you as a writer?
My writing process is very specific to music, though to be fair, I started reading poetry again. Yrsa Daley-Ward, she’s a brilliant poet and the person who got me into poetry again. I used to love it in school and becoming a musician, I’m so dedicated to rapping, that I forgot there’s a beautiful world of words in poetry… She’s got a book called Bone — I recommend that to everyone.
Did Heavy Is the Head have a central theme from the start, or was it something you developed over time?
This time around it was me on a really reflective, deeper, mental one. With GS&P, that was always going to be a South London story. It was 23 years of my life. Up until that moment, that was my whole story. Whereas Heavy Is the Head was me going to the studio and asking, who am I, what do I have to say, what do I need to say? It’s all these truths, it’s all these stories about who I am today, bearing the brunt of being Stormzy. Yes, I feel like the best MC in the fucking world, but I also feel like I can’t take all of this.
“Rachael’s Little Brother” feels like an emotional centerpiece — how did that song come together?
The sample is Big Brovaz’s “Baby Boy.” They’re a black-British band and they used to make R&B, pop and soul, and the only reason I would know that tune and love that tune is because of my big sister, Rachael. So to use that sample, flip it, rap over it, make it pure, from the heart — as much as you’re gonna talk about pain and struggle and ownership and all these other things, the goal was to just be a brilliant rapper. Then when it breaks down and I start singing at the end, that’s the actual bridge of “Baby Boy.”
You mention going to therapy in that song and you’ve talked about mental health in the past — how has therapy and making this album helped you with everything over the past two years?
You hear an artist talk about how music is therapy and music got them through, but for me, for the first time, I was like, “Wow, making this album actually helped me realize who I am.” It was me understanding that every emotion I’m feeling is valid. My sadness, my vulnerability is as important as my kingship and my confidence. I was embracing all things.
What did this album help you better understand about your place in the culture in Britain at this moment?
That I’m a human. I can bear different weights and responsibilities, whatever duties — role model, leadership — I can bear all that. But at the end of the day, I’m just a human. It used to be a proper struggle. I’d think I’d have to be almighty and invincible in everything I do, and it’s like, ‘Nah.’
How has being on the frontline of this struggle against racism in Britain and pushing for greater inclusion for people of color changed your perception of the world?
It’s made me understand that we live in a way more ignorant society than — well, to be fair, I always knew that, but sometimes there are very funny reminders of it. Whether it’s announcing a scholarship, and I have thousands of people screaming at me, saying, “How the hell can you do that, that’s so racist, why is it just for black people?” And it’s just like, “Wow, shit, who would’ve thought people could be so ignorant to the fact that this is anything but racist?” This is necessary, this is needed, this is important.
Was that also why it was important to have a song like “Superheroes” on the album?
One-hundred percent. Even with the distance that inevitably happens from my community, I was making sure I was talking to my people. I’m always talking to my brothers. I’m always saying, “I’m never not here.” It’s about having that conversation and being that person, giving some encouragement and motivation.
“Lessons” is about a recent heartbreak — was it difficult allowing yourself to be that vulnerable and honest on record?
I’m not just a bad boy, y’know [laughs]. I sat with [that song] for a while because it’s not just my truth. To put that kind of art out there, especially when I know people will interpret it and make their own version of whatever they think that truth is, as an artist I have to live with my truth and it’s always going to be difficult. I wanted to give an album documenting my whole journey over the past two to three years, and that’s such a massive part of my life — or was a part of my life. I had to face the music.
Now that you’ve had a few months to reflect on Glastonbury, how do you think that performance changed you as an artist?
It kind of gave me a sense of peace, in that I felt like I’d reached a height where I wouldn’t need to be striving for the next 10 years of my career. I’m not gonna be searching for that ultimate stage, that end goal — it happened to me at 25. I’m an ambitious person and, who knows, maybe I would’ve proper longed for that for a long time because that’s one of those things that’s only reserved for a very small percentage, a very small elite.
Zadie Smith wrote a wonderful review of your performance for The New Yorker where she said, “He references his elders without entirely bowing to them… He stalks the field, wondering why not Skepta, why not Wiley, why not Dizzee, why him, why now?” Do those questions weigh on you when you consider your success and the overall trajectory of grime?
Yeah, 100 percent that’s why I’m very vocal in terms of embracing… or not just embracing, it’s like she said, “Why not those three artists?” I understand that a lot of people had to bite the bullet for me, a lot of people had to be on the frontline and take the brunt for me to be able to be an artist who can do Glastonbury. I can only exist off of the likes of Wiley, Skepta and Dizzee Rascal — I can only exist because they came. That’s a major part of my story. I’m only able to win a BRIT Award because Wiley didn’t, you know? I guess now, we’re reaching a sense where black music, black artists, who have never been paid their dues or given the recognition, so now that I’ve come, perfect time, God’s timing, all those stars have aligned, I’ve reaped the benefit of what a lot of people went through.