The grime star celebrates a Number 1 LP with a storming Birmingham gig (left).
Half an hour before showtime, Stormzy’s warm-up DJ Rachael Anson interrupts her old-school hip-hop set to address the room over the mic. “How many ’ 70s babies do we have in here tonight?” she yells. Silence. “How many ’ 80s babies?” One or two isolated shouts. “So… how many ’ 90s babies?” Anson feigns shock, but the uproar that follows isn’t unexpected. The post-Millennial generation is Stormzy’s demographic and, like the rest of the nation’s “yout” he references in his verses, Birmingham have taken him to their hearts. A few hours earlier a queue outside the venue went snaking half a mile up the side of a busy dual carriageway. One group at the front said they’d been waiting there since 2pm. As such devotion shows, the 23- year-old from South London is now an anointed pop star, with a Number 1 album to prove it. Yet when he uploaded his now infamous Shut Up freestyle to YouTube in 2015, Stormzy was just another aspiring player spitting in front of his own crew in the park. Back then it was Skepta who was tipped for stardom. But the release of debut album Gang Signs & Prayer earlier this year, following a 12- month hiatus, has confirmed Stormzy as grime’s most dynamic young talent. Since then he’s remixed Ed Sheeran, guested on a Linkin Park album and been given a Deliveroo gold card. Tickets for the #GSAP tour sold out within minutes of being announced in February and the atmosphere in Birmingham feels like it’s been building for months. But when the man himself appears in a cloud of dry ice, bouncing on his toes to the coiled groove of album opener First Things First, it’s as if there’s a collective intake of breath. Can this really be him? At the same time, there’s no mistaking the tall, athletic frame. Starkly outfitted in white T-shirt, black leggings and box-fresh white trainers, Stormzy prowls the stage in a pantherlike crouch, unspooling verses with fluency and confidence. At the song’s finale he makes the admission: “This is the biggest headline show I’ve ever done…” – before adding that his first visit to the city was as support to Lethal Bizzle in 2014. Today, arms outstretched, he rejoices in facing his admirers alone. Backed solely by minimal lighting and diminutive tour DJ Tiiny, this is a show devoid of showbiz: no pyrotechnics, no bling. Using backing tracks may seem like he’s short-changing his audience, but it means the sound is unerringly crisp and the bass chest-caving. It also focuses attention on Stormzy’s own strengths, not least a formidable delivery which carries an air of coolheaded authority even as he rattles through raucous grime bangers Cold and WickedSkengMan 4. One of the surprises of Gang Signs & Prayer was Stormzy’s willingness to step outside grime’s stripped-down bashment template. His live set, too, frequently veers off-road. After calling for a chair, he seats himself for an unexpectedly touching reading of Velvet, delivered in a husky croon. Given similar treatment, even album interludes Blinded By Your Grace sound soul-stirring, especially when sung back to him by 3000 voices. And, wise to his new-found celebrity, he finds space for a roof-raising take on his Shape Of You remix. “This one’s by a good friend of mine,” he grins. Only a shouty cameo from local MC Jaykae and misfiring attempt at a Wretch 32- less 21 Gun Salute fall flat. The finale, though, is an impressive show of force. Stripping bare-chested for a moshpit-detonating Big For Your Boots and imperious Shut Up, Stormzy seems intent on lifting grime to another level through sheer willpower. And while he introduces old-school favourite Know Me From with the warning, “This is where it gets dangerous!”, the atmosphere stays resolutely upbeat and exuberant. As flushed faces stream for the doors, it’s as if grime has finally cast off its previous aura of brooding insularity – in the process uncovering a performer with a reach far beyond its LDN roots. His next major assignment is a debut appearance at that weekend’s Coachella festival in California; later in the year he’s off to Australia. Big steps, even for Stormzy’s size 12s. But in this form, he’s ready to take on the world.
BACKED SOLELY BY MINIMAL LIGHTING AND A TOUR DJ, THIS IS A SHOW DEVOID OF SHOWBIZ: NO PYROTECHNICS, NO BLING.
“Unspooling verses with arresting fluency and confidence.” Stormzy, O2 Academy, Birmingham, 11 April, 2017.
Whipping it up: Stormzy takes the weight off his feet. “This is where it gets dangerous!” Stormzy turns up the heat.