“It’s The Most Selfish Thing I’ve Ever Made”: Stormzy Opens Up About His Life-Affirming New Album
The transition from boy to man is supposed to take years. Mine took two weeks. I went to Jamaica in the summer of 2020 a boy and came back a man. OK, don’t get me wrong, I still have a hell of a lot of adulting to do and if you ever bore witness to the worst versions of me you’d find it difficult to see this man I’ve supposedly grown into but Jamaica changed a lot. I’m sure the setting helped.
Caribbean waves lapping at your feet; lush trees hanging overhead; sun rising and setting like a classic oil painting. You wake up every day in the kind of stillness that can’t be described, it can only be felt. Every day I would wake up with more clarity than the day before and more confidence in how I was going to face my future.
But it was the people I travelled with that made it happen. I was with people I could trust. People I could open up to. People I could be vulnerable around. Four clean-hearted souls. Friends very dear to my heart.
It was like therapy, every day – but no one intended for it to be like that. We were just supporting each other through our shit. Conversations in the pool would turn into moments of self-revelation. Chats at the dinner table became a time for unpacking trauma and healing. We took our fears to the ocean and gave it to the water. I never knew I’d left London with so much baggage. You don’t realise how much stuff you’re carrying until you decide to let it go.
But I didn’t just come back feeling lighter, I came back feeling different. I came back not just feeling like a man, but knowing what a man was and that was what I needed to be. I know that sounds like some hippy shit but one of the things I’d learnt in that transition is that you can’t get hung up on what people think.
You have to speak your truth. And the truth was that for all the success I had enjoyed and the wild ride I’d had and the love of my supporters, I realised that if I didn’t redefine what success meant to me, I would never be able to actually enjoy it.
Jamaica was my first holiday in years. I’d always hated the idea of chilling when the world’s moving. Being still made me uncomfortable. From my early twenties I’d been on a relentless mission to make music, make noise and make my name. That same drive had propelled me from my ends in South London to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in the blink of an eye so I can’t claim there was no benefit.
But the pandemic forced me to stop and because everything stopped I didn’t have to worry about the whole world moving while I stood still. My world tour was cancelled. So I had to rest. And I’d already made some life adjustments. I quit smoking weed because I knew that being alone in the house smoking weed would do no favours for my mental health.
I quit social media because I had come to the conclusion that God didn’t design us to consume that much information… but that’s a story for another day. So when I landed in Jamaica, I was ready. God made sure I was ready. It was his purpose that I was serving. I know it was me who did these things but he was guiding me. In the evenings, as the sun started to dip and the others would be getting ready for dinner, I would go off by myself, walk to the water and pray – my own private ritual. I had time to think and plenty to think about.
A year before I had broken up with an ex-girlfriend and my responsibility for that was still weighing heavy on me. It felt like I had blood on my hands from devastating the world that we had created for ourselves and the feeling became unbearable. Then, one evening, by the ocean, I sat and wrote out a long message. A message of accountability, not redemption. Seeking redemption at that point would have been both audacious and selfish but it felt like the beginning of the real healing process – a process that, even if I didn’t know it then, would come to reshape me both as a man and an artist.
And then there was my father. He left when I was a child. We don’t have a relationship. We don’t speak. I know he used to drive cabs because random strangers would DM me, saying, “Your dad’s so proud of you. I was in his car today, and he was saying so.” But I used to think that I’d be very much fine to leave this earth in a position where he and I weren’t talking. I was so ready to die with all the ill-feeling I had towards him.
But after Jamaica I guess something shifted in me. In time I went from anger to a kind of acceptance; to wanting to say: “I would rather forgive you.” Because he, like myself, is a flawed man. He is a flawed man who made a mistake – granted, a huge one – and has had to live with that for 20-odd years. I can’t imagine how that festers in the soul. How it haunts. The God I serve is one who gives us grace. And I know more than anyone what it feels like to want forgiveness and grace.
But, ultimately, my feelings about my ex, my dad, my career, my mental health and self-care really all came down to how to be a man. And more specifically how do I become a man. Me. Michael. Stormzy. The kind of man I want to be. That’s what’s changed.
Back when I was younger, my idea of masculinity was always rooted in violence: whoever could fight; whoever was more willing to go the extra mile to protect their name. But what we learnt about being men, about having all the girls and all the money and the violence, didn’t turn out to be real manhood for me – it was somewhat the opposite. I found confidence and strength in my vulnerability. Saying “I’m sorry” and “I love you”.
Taking accountability. Strengthening my relationship with God. Spending time with my nephews. We had to unlearn and redefine what we were taught being a man was. I still understand that I’m deeply flawed. It’s just that now I want to be better and I have a greater understanding of what “better” looks like.
This is the spirit that has guided my new album. In 2020, my record label’s co-president Alec Boateng – also my mentor – suggested I get in the studio with producer-songwriter Kassa “PRGRSHN” Alexander and in our very first session he played a piano chord that kicked off what would become the first track on my new record. That chord resonated with my soul and made me go on a journey I had no idea I was even ready to go on. There was no pre-meditation. But the moment I heard that chord, it was just me and the music. In the studio, we wrote down our intentions for the album on a big whiteboard. Words like “freedom”, “bravery”, “feeling”. I love music with all my heart and we made an album that I hope demonstrates this.
This album wasn’t made for the “fans” or the “haters” or the “hip-hop heads” or the “R&B lovers”. We considered no one. The audience who’ll receive it were not catered to in any way, shape or form. The listener wasn’t thought of once. Quite frankly, it’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever made. Picasso never used a particular shade of blue because he thought people would like it, he used it because that blue was bubbling in his spirit and it had to hit the canvas.
Everything was in service to music, to art, to my truth and most importantly that indescribable feeling when sound would touch my soul and it just felt good. “Don’t change that!” or “Let that guitar riff keep running” or “Keep that vocal exactly how it is.” Sometimes unexplainable. Sometimes perfectly imperfect. But it always felt right.
This album is the musical incarnation of that journey that I’ve been on in every way you can imagine. It was actually part of the journey itself. Defining it as “highs and lows” or “from boy to man” would be a huge understatement and an injustice to all the intricate details that make this journey as beautifully complicated as it is. But as the title of one of my favourite tracks on the album says, somewhere down the line, “I Got My Smile Back”.
My eyes can see
There’s sun behind my rain
There’s colour in my pain
I may fall down
Feet don’t fail me now
Cos through the storm
I found my smile
Stormzy’s new album, This Is What I Mean, will drop on 25 November.
Article Credit: Stormzy/Vogue.co.uk
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