Headie One’s music is at its best when he embraces his imperfections, the controversial UK drill artist maintaining a steely resolve even when his circumstances appear dire. On his previous mixtape, last year’s ‘Music x Road’, he grippingly showed us a timeline in which you could be in prison one day, eating your mum’s Sunday roast the next and then off on a holiday to the Caribbean. Although it was marked as a UK drill album, it drew just as much from the paranoid atmosphere of US Mafioso rap staples such as Biggie’s ‘Life After Death’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Reasonable Doubt’.
The 26-year-old’s latest mixtape, ‘Gang’, a collaboration with producer Fred again, whose moniker sounds like something you might say if your creepy Uncle Fred kept calling your iPhone, sees him boldly double down on these kind of introspective themes — but the music feels far more experimental and rooted in melancholy than his previous work. The fact that it features Jamie xx, FKA Twigs, Slowthai, Octavian and Sampha also reflects just how much his star is starting to climb.
It’s fitting that the tape begins with the morose piano and fiercely pumping heartbeat of ‘Told’, Headie calmly reflecting on the gang mentality instilled in him as a youth and how it might have carried through into adulthood: “Family first, that’s the code / That’s what I was told, you know?” he sings. The song is all atmosphere, and shows his growth as a vocalist. Meanwhile, the jagged vocal distortion of ‘Gang’ and the splintered synths of Jamie xx-assisted ‘Smoke’ show much more of an electronic and techno influence than you might expect from Headie.
The bouncy latter song feels like it could be the crossover single that properly cements him into the mainstream. “You know how many lonely nights I felt? / Or the times I got an empty promise? / I can’t trust a soul; I only trust my pocket,” Headie triumphantly raps over a potential new anthem for London drug dealers. There’s a clear sense of artistic growth here, Fred inspiring Headie to find transcendence from a tower block.
On the solemn ‘Judge Me’, which features FKA Twigs’ trademark mournful howls, Headie remembers the days he was “broke” but “still loved myself” as his thoughts flicker in and out of focus. This soul-baring, cathartic song feels like a genuine look into the artist’s subconscious. ‘Know Me’ goes to an even deeper place lyrically, with the poetic line “I got pain in my chest, but I find comfort in it” speaking to the idea that young black men must find a way to get used to emotional disarray, turning it into a strength that can – and will – endure.
Powerful closer ‘Soldiers’ sees Headie address his frustrations at being monitored by police (the rapper is currently serving a six-month prison sentence for knife possession). However, the fact he ends the song with the inspiring words “we march on” suggests brighter days are on the horizon. His nasally, soft vocals transition from dejected to resolute, but it’s genuinely refreshing to hear from a drill artist who isn’t afraid to take off their armour – even if just for a second.
Headie might sound fed up throughout this mixtape, but even when he’s in the grips of a depression (On ‘Smoke’ he sombrely raps: “I know how it feels to be forgotten”) you never doubt his ability to persevere and find a better way. If this mixtape is a sign of things to come, then don’t be surprised if Headie One’s name is soon mentioned among the Skeptas, Giggses, and Stormzys of the world. He sure deserves it.
Release date: April 3
Record label: Relentless Records