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Gone By The Time That They Clocked Him
From self-released freestyle rapper to chart-topping and much-praised music star is one heck of a journey. But that is just what Michael "Stormzy" Omani Owuo has this week achieved. The British rapper first came to public attention in 2015 when after making a name for himself with an entertaining series of improvised freestyle street performances posted online, he was able to command a loyal enough following to propel his self-released tracks into the mainstream charts. Wickedskengman 4 was the first to do so, landing him his first Top 40 hit in September 2015. He followed that with a cheeky attempt to gatecrash the Christmas charts that year, the result being a Top 10 placing for Shut Up after a mass campaign of downloads.
His major breakthrough came in 2017 with the highly-acclaimed Gang Signs And Prayer album, still independently released but with major label backing for distribution and promotion. His first ever truly commercial recordings saw him showered with awards and land a first-ever "proper" hit single, even performing Blinded By Your Grace on X Factor as it embarked on a journey to Number 7 in the charts at the end of that year. Multiple BRITS nominations followed in its wake.
So inevitably the next Stormzy single was always going to be a huge deal. Vossi Bop landed online to huge shouts of joy last week and has quite simply dominated streams (and perhaps just as surprisingly sales) ever since. Boldly eschewing even the nod to commercialism represented by MNEK's guest vocals on Blinded By Your Grace, the new single is effectively classic Stormzy as we always knew him, a sparse grime production with subtle beats that allows his flow to take centre stage. Vossi Bop is instantly one of the most compelling rap hits you have heard this year, and that's before we've even contemplated the immaculately-conceived video which features ever-growing crowds of choreographed dancers and a series of swift costume and location changes all the while maintaining the concept of being shot in a single take.
It storms (if you will pardon the pun) to Number One on the Official UK Singles chart, far and away Stormzy's biggest chart hit to date, in every sense of the word. Vossi Bop notched up a quite phenomenal 12.7m streams over the last seven days, the highest total ever achieved by a rap single and indeed the fifth highest one-week total of all time. They contributed a colossal 86,000 chart sales to the single's total sale of almost 94,500 - a figure second only to the 126,000 combined sales with which Ariana Grande topped the charts with 7 Rings back in January. It all goes to show just how dreams can become reality. All you have to do is drop some rhymes on YouTube and the sky is the limit.
Never Ever Getting It
Of all the symbolism onscreen in the video for her new single, the most in-your-face reference of them all is the way the snake motif of Taylor Swift's previous work explodes into a shower of butterflies. We last saw the American superstar two years ago when her sixth album reputation saw her take on her critics and the world in a series of angry, acidic tracks which were all agreed to represent a step forward from the bubbly pop princess of the past. But while the album may have spawned her first-ever British Number One hit single Look What You Made Me Do, the release was largely devoid of sensation, its commercial life and indeed lasting impact vanishingly small when compared to the triumphs of the past. TayTay could be forgiven this as a one-off piece of self-indulgence. Her next move would be the one which determined if her superstar status is intact.
So the release of Me! this week has represented a rebirth in a great many ways. She has a new record deal, a new musical outlook and by the sounds of it a renewed sense of purpose. The new single is nothing less than a no punches pulled no expense spared lavish statement that Taylor is back and ready to kick arse. Most attention in the week inevitably focused on the video for Me!, its every shot examined in detail for sideways references, Easter Eggs and hints about her future musical plans. But it is also a fine breezy pop record too, shimmering with the kind of upbeat joy that seems to be oddly out of fashion. Just don't mention Emeli Sande too loudly. Sat next to the intense nihilism of Billie Eilish it is like an intravenous shot of Haribo. Taylor doesn't have the entire stage to herself either, Brendan Urie from Panic! At The Disco joins the ever-growing cast of male singers who have joined Taylor Swift in a duet.
Given the splash with which it landed, it seemed more or less a given that the single would fly almost immediately the top of charts worldwide, and I noted as such at the end of the column last week. But once the initial flurry of interest wore off Me! sagged somewhat. Just a few hundred copies behind Stormzy in the chart race on Monday, she ends the week more than 20,000 copies behind - far enough, in fact, to ensure the single can only chart at Number 3 in its first week on sale. For context though, this is still only the fifth Top 3 single of her career and her biggest chart hit of any kind since the aforementioned Look What You Made Me Do. Me! could be a magnesium hit, burning brightly and briefly. Or it could wind up a long-running chart success (and perhaps destined for a chart life longer than the Stormzy record to boot). Either way, the deposed Queen of American pop music is back to wrestle her crown back from Ariana and you would like to think her upcoming seventh album (codename: TS7) has more surprises like this up its sleeve.
A mini battle at the top of the Official UK Albums chart was resolved in fairly short order in favour of Pink. Hard on the heels of her Outstanding Contribution award at the Brits, the singer's eighth album proper Hurts 2B Human duly becomes her third chart-topping release. Her other two Number One records: Funhouse from 2008 and her last album Beautiful Trauma released in 2017. The release of the album has a minor impact on the chart form of its lead single Walk Me Home which rises 2 to 16, whilst she also charts with the album's title track (a duet with Khalid) at Number 61 and Can We Pretend at Number 88.
In an otherwise uneventful Top 20 the only other new entry is happily a track which is a source of fascination. Released in aid of (and credited to) bird charity RSPB, Let Nature Sing is nothing more than two and a half minutes of birdsong, the kind of track you find on meditation or sleep aid albums and most certainly not anywhere near the commercial pop charts. But it wasn't meant to be listened to. It serves as a statement and in charitable terms a hugely successful one. What I'm told is the first ever chart hit made up entirely of nature sounds sold 23,807 copies last week - the vast majority of which were digital purchases. That makes it easily the most-purchased track of the week, but still only enough to see the track chart at Number 18. Bizarrely it isn't actually the first-ever chart hit to feature birdsong, that honour going to Et Les Oiseaux Chantant from French collective Sweet People which reached Number 4 at the end of 1980. The work of celebrated French composer Alain Morisod, the track was an ambient musical piece in which the birdsong was a largely incidental accompaniment. The RSPB single features our feathered friends without a man-made musical instrument in earshot.
Digging Him Out
With this column frequently pondering the potential fate of hardcore rap hits as one-week wonders, it seems obligatory to also note those which defy explanations. His controversial past less of an issue than it could have been, Digga D actually climbs the chart this week with No Diet, the Drill single rising 27-20 in a manner which suggests it has far more commercial legs than it might have first appeared. Unless it drops away dramatically next week, in which case as you were.
Mind you, there's another single just below which is also confounding (my) expectations. Three weeks into its chart life BTS's Boy With Luv is still clinging on, holding firm at Number 29. That might well be down to the fact that it has found its way onto many radio playlists, albeit in a manner which downplays the contribution of BTS and attempts to recast the track as a work by guest star Halsey. Even so, the track is still a long way from the Number 13 it debuted at a fortnight ago and will struggle to get anywhere near that level again.
Baby steps this week for the Kygo and Rita Ora soundtrack single Carry On, a new entry last week at Number 39 but which now climbs to Number 30. Clearly, the hope is that the release of the Detective Pikachu movie in which it features will give the single a boost.
Back With A Slight Whimper
There are also two singles new to the Top 40 which have climbed from the depths over the past few weeks - both surprisingly by well-established female stars. Her last single Ruin My Life may well have been an enduring chart hit and a Top 10 hit single in the new year, but Zara Larsson's follow-up Don't Worry 'Bout Me has taken time to light up commercially. It sits this week at Number 34 after five weeks on the chart. Just below Ellie Goulding reaches the Top 40 at Number 36 with her new single Sixteen, this its best chart placing after three weeks around. It is the first truly solo Top 40 hit single for the always compelling star since 2016 soundtrack hit Still Falling For You, the gap in her output filled since by her contributions to the Kygo single First Time and the seasonal hit Close To Me on which she shared billing with Diplo. Taken from her forthcoming fourth album, Sixteen is a second go at returning her to the charts after March release Flux crashed out at Number 97, this at the same time as she featured on the similarly misfiring Clean Bandit single Mama which suffered a similar fate and could only reach Number 98.
Do I have any bold predictions for next week? Well, there is a new Lewis Capaldi track out, but with Stormzy still doing three-quarters of a million plays a day on Spotify alone I don't really think he's got too much to worry about, has he?