You can tell how big a deal Stormzy’s second album is not just by its timing – intent on using those size 12s to boot Robbie Williams, Harry Styles or Coldplay out of the Christmas number one spot – but by the power of the gathered horns that form the backing for the opening song, Big Michael. It’s a mighty fanfare, a one-man military assault. “Big Michael’s back, your time is up,” he repeats, going on, on Audacity, to call out the “lickle fish” who might imagine themselves to have made an impact anywhere close to that of Michael Omari from Norbury over the past few years.
In case anyone has forgotten some of the 26-year-old’s big moments, they’re all ticked off here. He mentions the small matter of headlining Glastonbury in both of the first two songs. If you don’t recall how many top 10 hits he has, he tells you on Wiley Flow. His clean-up at the 2018 Brit Awards is recalled on the ballad Crown, and he even reminds us he was on the cover of GQ magazine during Rachael’s Little Brother.
So far, so cocky. The music, too, is packed with bold moments, from the propulsive dancehall rhythms of Own It to the most obvious hit, Pop Boy, which races along with supreme confidence and finds room for a slick cameo from new Manchester talent Aitch.
Other guests include US R&B singer H.E.R., drill rapper Headie One and naturally, his frequent duet partner Ed Sheeran. But lyrically, it’s all about Stormzy, a broad portrait that shows him as conflicted – confident but frequently unhappy. That album title insists that he’s a king but also that it’s far from easy.
As with the churchy touches on his 2017 debut, Gang Signs & Prayer, God is a strong presence. “The holy blood of Christ, you don’t ever let me down,” he raps on Do Better, a song about his mental struggles. He sings the chorus – not the only time he tries that style here. His singing voice isn’t the most powerful but it seems as though he knows it too, and uses it to express his vulnerability.
In contrast to most rappers’ explicit tales of sexual conquests, he offers Lessons, a gentle song about his break-up with his TV presenter girlfriend Maya Jama in which he takes all of the blame. “Greatest love I ever knew, I poured it down the drain,” he raps. On One Second, he insists: “I am not the poster boy for mental health,” but it’s still so rare to see a superstar being starkly honest about the downs while celebrating the ups.
Moaning about the hardships of achieving your dreams is a classic second album trope, and can be tedious, but Stormzy has bigger problems than the wrong colour M&Ms in his dressing room. It sounds as though he would be tormented even if he was still working in an oil refinery in Southampton. It’s the good fortune of the rest of us that he can articulate his battles with such lyrical dexterity on another great album.