STiR by LayFullstop review

LayFullstop opens STiR with a prayer spoken over a muted jazztronica beat, giving thanks to God for her family, friends and the opportunities she’s been given in life. It sets an unapologetically religious tone for the rest of the mixtape and announces her new musical style, blending gospel, jazz and grime, which she broadly labels ‘Christian-based music’. The mixtape is Lay’s third LP, following 2018’s warmly-received Colour Reaction.

The rapper and singer-songwriter, who grew up in Birmingham before moving to Manchester, is perhaps best known for her 2019 performance of Cherries for the COLORS Youtube series and has received praise for her silky jazz-rap delivery and the honest vulnerability of her lyrics. Can’t you hear the pain within the rhymes that I rap? You think I’m trying to slave away because I like where I’m at? she spits on Colour Reaction’s Kriss.

The Yard in Cheetham Hill was a fitting venue for the mixtape’s launch party, with its tented roof and wooden church pews resting against brick walls. A short film created by Lay explained that the project is about finding purpose in your life and feeling confident in your beliefs. It’s meant to ‘stir’ something within you and, for Lay, producing the LP re-centred religion in her life.

“[Religion is] obviously a big part of who I am, and music is a reflection of who I am, so it becomes the fundamental part of my music as well,” she explained in a recent interview with Haste Magazine. “Religion can feel overpowering to somebody who doesn’t necessarily hold the same beliefs and stuff. But I do try and share my world, whether it’s my peace, my struggles, things that I find difficult or am thankful for.”

Receipts, which had previously been released as a single, is one of the strongest tracks on the mixtape. Lay harmonizes over a smooth jazztronica beat before effortlessly transitioning into the fast-paced rap that had characterised her earlier releases. Riddums and patterns didn’t just magically happen / There was a man with a plan, she raps on the second verse, thanking God for her previous successes.

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Lay has said that each of her releases represents a season in her life. Although she doesn’t disown her previous work – Lay performed Cherries and The Blue Compilation’s Intact at the launch – she talks about a desire to move forward with her work and better reflect her faith in the music she makes.

These themes are explored on Nostalgia which is the most lyrically interesting song on the mixtape. Yeah, we know you worked hard / Memories are great scars / Future’s on the phone right now, Lay sings softly with the same vulnerability that was present on Colour Reaction. Now, however, the lyrics are sung with a quiet confidence: Breaking from the glass / Holding on’s a trap / Just listen where you can go now.

Lay is conscious that her new direction won’t be to everyone’s taste. She reassured the audience at The Yard more than once that she isn’t trying to enforce her beliefs on people and at one point asked with a grin: “I haven’t gone too deep on you, have I?” On tracks like Slow Down and Training Wheels, fans can project their own inner-conflicts and narratives onto Lay’s lyrics without having to share her beliefs.

Photo: Jake Miller

Other tracks, like Foreigner, are more impenetrable to secular listeners in their explicit religious references, setting out Lay’s rejection of ‘New Age’ idols and emphasising her Christian belief over science looking for answers / as they try to describe our worth.

For artists like Lay, being transparent about faith can come with risks. The MOBO award-winning grime artist Guvna B has spoken about how the religious nature of his releases led some radio stations to not play his music and told Noisey that: “I don’t think people are as free to share their faith or religious views without being afraid that it can ostracise some of their fan base.”

In a recent Radio 4 documentary, The Gospel of Grime, journalist Jesse Bernard charted the development of gospel and Christian music within Black British churches and explained how Stormzy’s 2019 Glastonbury performance of Blinded by Your Grace, Pt. 2 marked a watershed moment for how Christian artists could express their faith. As the documentary emphasised, Stormzy introduced the track with a direct appeal to the crowd to “give God all the glory, right now,” rather than make vague statements about ‘blessings’.

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STiR is part of this evolving picture of how artists are able to express their faith through their music. Why this change is happening now, and not a decade ago, is harder to diagnose. Guvna B has said that gospel’s current significance and inclusion in mainstream releases says something about the need for hope, not just in music, but in society more broadly. Whilst church attendance continues to stagnate, those who have grown up in a society defined by austerity and ruthless individualism are perhaps more open to music which looks to God for reassurance and collective joy.

One of Lay’s strengths is that she is able to skillfully switch between soulful, gospel singing and more grimy rap, as shown in Receipts. Most of the mixtape, however, leaves little room for Lay’s harder, fast-paced flow that we’ve enjoyed in her previous work. Take the Wheel, Most High and Postcards would benefit from the change in tempo and intensity that this would bring.

Photo: Jake Miller

To appreciate STiR fully, you have to watch Lay perform it on stage. She has said in interviews that jazz is the element that ties all her work together and the energy inherent in both jazz and grime has been present right from the start. Whether it’s in her music videos, Roots Raddix releases or live shows, it is clear that she finds purpose and confidence in performing her music.

STiR may not be to everyone’s taste, particularly if you were hoping for another rap-heavy release, but it’s Lay at her most self-assured and soulful to date.

STiR by LayFullstop is self-released. Consider buying the album from one of Greater Manchester’s independent record shops or from the artist’s Bandcamp.