When Stormzy last played London back in March, he blew the roof off the O2 with an arena show full of bombast, rage and energy in support of second album Heavy Is The Head. Ten months later at the cosy Queen Elizabeth Hall across town, he launched third LP This Is What I Mean on Tuesday afternoon with a tender presentation of touching ballads and considered storytelling. A lot can change in a short amount of time.
At this special mid-afternoon show, which will be streamed worldwide today, Stormzy performed six songs from the new album, many for the first time, and gave context to them through periodical Q&A segments between songs with Julie Adenuga.
A song would be played – first came the introspective, heartbroken Hide and Seek – before armchairs were wheeled out again for more chat, over and over. While it could have broken up the flow of a traditional live show, this felt more like a documentary playing out on stage, where you’d find out about a song – such as Please, where Stormzy spoke about interrogating the many meanings of the word through the writing process – before hearing a dazzling rendition of it moments later.
As well as a window into the new album, the conversations between the songs also gave framing to the rapper’s story so far. With Adenuga, he discussed the lineage of Black British music alongside special guest Jazzie B. He explained how he wanted to focus on growth to avoid becoming a “manchild,” and said that the inner peace he found while making This Is What I Mean could only have come from shedding all expectations placed on him from others.
“It takes a village,” Stormzy said of his success, bringing to mind the endless list of rappers he reeled off during his Glastonbury headline performance in 2019, all of whom were part of his journey. Many were in attendance here too, with Wretch 32, Gabrielle and comedian Mo Gilligan all standing up to ask questions at the end. As became abundantly clear, the message of the show was one of community and collaboration.
During the conversations, Stormzy also admitted that he’s still a work in progress as a singer (work is going very well it seems, according to this showing) and you get the sense the quiet, considered statements on the new album are the path he may well tread for a long time. With performances as gorgeous and affecting as those on Firebabe and Give It To The Water – both backed by the excellent Debbie – he showed himself to be as wonderful a deep thinker as he is a hellraiser.