Eighteen months since the release of his debut album, Stormzy can look back on a period in which his career and his life have been transformed. He was already soaring before Gang Signs and Prayer hit the airwaves and the streaming services, but the stellar success of that LP - as its name suggests, a vivid and thrilling journey through soul, gospel and grime - elevated him to an entirely new level of fame. The boy from Croydon, born to Ghanaian parents, is now a chart-topping artist with awards galore: one Ivor Novello, two Brits, and six MOBO Awards. Once the underdog, how has Michael Omari adjusted to being the frontrunner?
“As much as I’m the frontrunner, there are still so many underdog elements to what I do”, he points out. “The perfect way to put it is like: Wireless (Festival). I’m a headline act. You’ve got J.Cole, DJ Khaled, myself, Drake, whoever was going to be there that weekend. As much as I’m a headline act...whoever was coming that weekend, I doubt they was expecting me to have the set of the weekend. Not to say that I’m the self-proclaimed set of the weekend, but as in it wouldn’t have been a thought that “ah yeah, Stormzy’s gonna flippin’ win”, like, because of the stature of artist I’m next to, if you get what I mean? So in that sense I still feel like an underdog, but I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a frontrunner. I’m someone who always feels like I’ve got something to prove.”
Proving himself, apparently, isn’t just about being an artist - it’s about remaining clear about who and what he represents, even as he enters unprecedented territory for a black British MC. “In this country”, he notes, “(black people) are not really used to having superstars. You get what I mean? Like, an actual superstar that’s black. Not to say I’m, the first rap superstar, like, Tinie or Dizzee, but you know what I mean - (not one) with as much love from the community...I feel like our relationship with stardom is a bit warped. Like we’ve always been used to the artist going through the motions and then disappearing, not being tangible.”
Staying in touch with his roots might seem easier said than done: after all, he’s not seeing so many gang signs these days, and from the looks of his rapidly-expanding fanbase, most of his prayers have been answered. How will he continue to connect with his audience, even as he grows away from them? It’s a challenge he’s considered deeply, and feels ready to meet. “There’s always a duty to keep it real and keep it original and stick to where you come from”, he observes, “but I think there’s also a duty - that no-one talks about - to also talk about, ‘a’ight, that’s great, but I’m here now. I live here.’ He gestures around him at his spacious apartment, overlooking a west London waterfront. “I walk out there, it’s not dangerous; I’ve got underground parking...this is me today,” he asserts, with a statement of intent as bold as “First Things First”, the opening track of his debut LP. “I am Stormzy today, and I’m definitely not still in the hood, I’m in a totally different financial position, but these are the facts of the matter.”
There’s one theme to which Stormzy keeps returning: that of authenticity, which will be a guiding theme of his new album. “If you’re scared of your truth”, he explains, “that’s when people don’t know where you’re coming from. And I’m not scared of my truth, at all.” He places his fist firmly into his palm for emphasis. “I think that’s one thing with me, for the rest of my career. From GSAP, to whatever album’s gonna be my last one, the bottom line will be that: he was a bad boy. Not in the sense of being streetwise, but that he was true to himself and he was unapologetic.”