For all the talk of new wave grime artists, Stormzy has long been standing head and shoulders -- literally and figuratively -- above his peers.
Whether you agree or not with the term "new wave", it's arguably irrelevant to Michael Omari, who, on his debut album, continues to ascend the sometimes-restrictive nature of the genre.
The opening tracks feature plenty of the characteristic chest puffing and hostility associated with grime, ticking genre boxes such as declaring the hard work put in on "First Things First," an Eskibeat homage aptly titled "Cold," and features from heavy hitters Ghetts and J HUS on "Bad Boys." But as Gang Signs unfolds, a lot of the bravado falls away, revealing Omari's inner workings, his roots, and his desire to elevate grime to the next level.
"Blinded by Your Grace, Pt.
1" is the first sign that this isn't your typical grime album, offering a touch of gospel and a respite to the proceedings.
Whereas Omari has turned his hand to slower numbers in the past -- notably on his 2014 EP Dreamers Disease -- here his singing and the accompanying backing piano feel impassioned and organic.
The album continues to shift, gradually at first, with harder tracks alternating with R&B or gospel numbers; by the halfway point, "Cigarettes and Kush," mellow vibes dominate the record.
The refusal to pack the track list with bangers is the differentiating factor between Stormzy the grime MC and Stormzy the artist, elegantly showcasing that grime doesn't have to play by the rules, and that artists can express themselves outside of boasting and smack talk, in effect acting as ammo for the argument that diversity and creativity are still prevalent in the scene.
The guest spots featured in the latter half of the album are perfectly chosen, with appearances from Kehlani, Wretch 32, MNEK, and Raleigh Ritchie, who all act as counterweights to Omari's deeper tones.
Conversely, one of the most touching moments doesn't feature any names; instead, "100 Bags" finds Omari sharing an open-letter to his mum, apologizing for past actions that wouldn't have made her proud, and promising to look after her as thanks for raising him alone.
He's calling from prison -- as he's still serving a life sentence for murder -- just to drop his endorsement: it provides a perfect summation of Stormzy the artist, in the process calling out any MCs from his generation who act resistant or impose boundaries on grime at a time when grime is primed for bigger, more expansive horizons.
Directly afterward, Gang Signs hits you with Stormzy's breaking track "Shut Up," reminding haters to hush; quite rightly as "Shut Up" is easily one of the biggest grime tracks in recent years.
It cannot be understated how bold it is to go against the grain in a genre where adherence to style can equal respect, but Stormzy's ambition exceeds potential judgment from purists.
He's more concerned with expressing himself and adapting to survive, so that he can express further for years to come.