When british artist Stormzy met JAY-Z earlier in 2019 during a recording session for Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project, the veteran rapper advised him to create a culture, not just a career: “Because culture moves the whole world,” Stormzy recalls him saying. The encounter was so inspiring that the 26-year-old Londoner used a videoclip recorded when they had met to introduce his headlining performance at the Glastonbury Festival in June -- the first ever by a black British solo artist.

Though Stormzy has been featured on only one minor U.S. hit so far (Linkin Park’s “Good Goodbye” in 2017), he is hailed at home as royalty, winning over two dozen awards, including British male solo artist at the BRIT Awards and best worldwide act at the MTV Europe Music Awards (both in 2017). This year, he guested on Sheeran’s “Take Me Back to London” -- his second U.K. No. 1, following his own “Vossi Bop.” And now, with his second album, Heavy Is the Head, released on Atlantic, Stormzy is hoping to finally become a global star himself. “It sounds a bit funny coming from a rapper, but I’ve never been afraid of” pulling from all genres, he says. “I can be inspired by the magnitude of Ed Sheeran and Adele.”

Stormzy photographed on Nov. 26, 2019 at Atlantic Records in London.
Austin Hargrave

Born Michael Omari Jr. in Croydon, South London, in 1993, Stormzy emerged as an artist just as grime was coming out of a commercial and creative slump. During the 2000s, pioneers such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley only crossed over by trading grime’s abrasive intensity for friendly dance-pop, as a moral panic about gang-related violence hampered the live scene. In 2014, however, veteran rapper Skepta relit the sound’s fire with his hit “Shutdown.” When Stormzy arrived, he was embraced as the full package of talent and charisma that British rap had been waiting for -- it didn’t hurt that he was 10 years younger than Skepta. Wiley tweeted his blessing that October: “Please take it where we couldn’t, my brother.”

Stormzy spent the next three years building a tight creative team, many of whom also have Ghanaian roots like he does. By 2017, he had released his debut, Gang Signs & Prayer, through his own #Merky Records (distributed by Warner Music Group’s Alternative Distribution Alliance). It was the first independent grime album to reach No. 1 in the United Kingdom. In January, #Merky signed a joint-venture deal with Atlantic Records U.K.; Heavy Is the Head will be Stormzy’s major-label debut.

From the start, Stormzy’s strategy has been shaped by observing the “weird stigma” that usually comes with success in U.K. rap culture. “Artists get championed through the underground, and as soon as they get to the mainstream, that community spirit is lost,” he says. “I said, ‘When I finally get my chance, it’s important that I stay grounded.’ ” He has done so by paying tribute to dozens of such rappers during his set at Glastonbury and by launching a publishing imprint for black British writers and a Cambridge University scholarship for black British students in 2018.

Stormzy is politically outspoken, too, often turning high-profile appearances like Glastonbury and the 2018 BRIT Awards into opportunities to condemn Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May. Recently, on Instagram, he endorsed the opposition Labour Party; the day after his post, 366,000 people registered to vote, according to GOV.UK, compared with 109,000 the day before. “It just goes to show that we’re entering a time when black voices are way more prominent and influential,” says Stormzy. “I feel like everyone’s got braver. We’re being loud about our culture.”

Stormzy photographed on Nov. 26, 2019 at Atlantic Records in London.
Austin Hargrave

Right now, Stormzy is among the loudest -- and plans to keep it that way. The album title refers to his status as one of the most celebrated and most scrutinized artists in Britain (At Glastonbury, he led a “Fuck the government” chant) and how that weighs on him. “It’s very overwhelming and quite scary in terms of meaning this and that to different people,” he says. “But recently, making this album and telling my truths, I came to a slow realization: You can be superman a lot of the days, but you’re human. And sometimes, it’s going to be too much. You’re going to trip and stumble. It’s just coming to terms with the fact that I can still be flawed in my brilliance.”

He chronicles all of this on Heavy Is the Head, the product of two years’ work. The album has minimal guest spots (unlike his debut), though the dancehall-flavored “Own It” features Nigeria’s Burna Boy and Sheeran, a close friend since he first reached out to Stormzy in 2016. “He’s always been an open fan of black culture,” says Stormzy. “From as soon as he came in the game, he has worked with rappers.”

Stormzy has similar global ambitions, but unlike grime artists before him, may actually break through. His 55-date 2020 world tour schedule includes a dozen U.S. shows as well as first-time stops in Africa and headlining gigs in Dubai and China.

“I’m mad blessed,” says Stormzy, who is already thinking ahead to a third album. “The third one’s your homecoming. As an artist, albums are my everything. When I’m not here, that’s what lives on. You know when you see Kanye [West] and look back at his discography and you have all these brilliant pieces of art? That’s exactly how I want it.”

Stormzy's Strategizers

Tobe Onwuka

Onwuka, 29, quit his job at a car dealership in 2014 to manage his longtime friend, using his savings as seed money. When Onwuka and Stormzy decided that major labels weren’t offering anything that they couldn’t do themselves, they established #Merky Records and signed a distribution deal with Warner Music Group’s Alternative Distribution Alliance.

Akua Agyemfra
Brand Manager

Agyemfra, 36, met Stormzy in 2014 through her job in the entertainment department at adidas before founding her own brand consultancy, bea.london, whose clients include Spotify and rapper Wretch 32. Tasked with realizing Stormzy’s audacious ideas, she turned a book offer from Penguin Random House into a long-term partnership, #Merky Books, and established his Cambridge University scholarship.

Alec Boateng
Co-head of A&R, Atlantic Records U.K.

“In my short four years in this music industry, I can honestly say I’m yet to pick a mind as brilliant as Twin’s,” Stormzy has said of Boateng, aka Twin B. The respect is mutual: “Stormzy is one of the most special talents of his generation,” says Boateng, who brokered Atlantic Records U.K.’s deal with Stormzy and #Merky Records before being appointed co-head of A&R. (He’s also a DJ for BBC Radio 1Xtra.)

David Saslow
Executive vp international artist relations/A&R, Atlantic Records

In June, Atlantic Records appointed Saslow to his current role, overseeing a roster that includes Ed Sheeran and Coldplay as well as Stormzy. “Not only is Heavy Is the Head an incredible album,” says Saslow, “but Stormzy is motivating the youth of London to take action politically, encouraging hundreds of thousands to register to vote.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Billboard.

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