As album covers go, Headie One’s ‘Edna’ speaks volumes. With his top off, gym-toned muscles on show, the monochrome image of Tottenham-born Irving Adjei is a clear nod to classic US rap albums of yore. But for all the 50 Cent-style posturing, there’s an intimacy here too. Headie looks away from the camera, his gaze fixed in contemplation on a birth-plate necklace – a tribute to the record’s name-sake, his late mother.
It sets the mood for the whole of ‘Edna’. Headie One’s hotly anticipated debut album is game-changing, both for the UK drill scene and the rapper’s personal narrative.
Since his musical career started around six years ago, Headie One’s output has been prolific to say the least. Over the course of eight mixtapes, the north London MC has jumped from the Kenny Allstar-backed ‘Drillers X Trappers’ to the critically acclaimed, dance-fusion of this year’s Fred again…-produced ‘GANG’. His lyrics consistently deal with the harsh realities of growing up on north London’s notorious Broadwater Farm estate, drug running and spells in prison. A fine balance between music and road played out in real-time; Headie was only being released from prison this April for carrying a knife.
‘Edna’ enters the musical landscape at a time of peak-drill. Despite the moral furore still surrounding the genre, its gritty, futuristic trademark sound is on an unstoppable rise. UK producers such as 808Melo and AXL beats have gone stratospheric stateside, crafting hits for Drake, Travis Scott and the late, great Pop Smoke. Back home, Headie One guested on Stormzy’s chart-topping album ‘Heavy is The Head’, consolidating his widely recognised standing as the best rapper in the scene.
If Headie One’s 2019 mixtape ‘Music x Road’ hinted at cross-over ambition, ‘Edna’ is its grown-up, lavish cousin. At 20 tracks long, it’s a sprawling, slickly-produced body of work, unmistakably modelled on the Drake mixtape school of thought. You only need to take one look at the list of producers and features on ‘Edna’ to realise that Headie One is aiming for top-tier, international rapper appeal on his debut.
The whole album is washed in the melancholy, minor-key trap beats requisite of in-vogue modern hip-hop. ‘Hear No Evil’, featuring Future, marries the jittering hi-hats and ominous bass of Travis Scott’s Canadian protojé Wondagurl. “She wants a bad boy like Diddy”, Headie boasts, beefed up by one very expensive-sounding instrumental. The boujee credits continue on ‘F U Pay Me’ ft. Ivorian Doll, courtesy of Kenny Beats, aka the most in-demand US producer right now. “I wake up screaming, ‘Fuck you – pay me!” is Headie’s rise-and-shine message. Unsurprisingly, layered over playful playground taunts and Kenny’s booming, minimalist bassline, it goes off.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the ‘Only You Freestyle’ featuring some guy called Aubrey Drake Graham. Headie One may already be the reigning champion of Drill, but there’s no denying a Champagne Papi seal of approval is the crowning glory in ‘Edna’s transatlantic conquest. Ever the Anglophile, Drizzy returns to form after the cold-fish that was ‘Toosie Slide’, flaunting his familiarity with UK culture via a Maya Jama name-drop. The best part, though, is Headie’s follow-up; a nonchalant drill-delivery that rapidly turns into cascading word-play, accompanied by producer M1onthebeat’s haunting choral lines and sliding 808s.
‘Edna’, then, is rap-star swag done strictly on Headie One’s terms. It’s a move into the mainstream, without forgetting where it all began. ‘Triple Science’ is a swift retort to his naysayers: chaotic, furious spitting ahead of unrelenting snares, as the MC struggles to make peace with his past.
Frequently, on ‘Edna’, Headie One seems caught between his new life and his old one. This dilemma, explored on ‘Music x Road’, still rings true on the eerie ‘Bumpy Ride’ featuring M Huncho: “I took the oath, and I lied”. Elsewhere, Headie pulls apart the puzzle, wading through dense trap to redemptive strings on ‘The Light’, reflecting on broken social systems with “Edna watching over me”. ‘Breathing’ and ‘Cold’ go further and ask pressing questions of the Government when dealing is a last resort, youth clubs are shut down and there’s nowhere else to turn.
Aside from representing his attempt to break America, honour drill origins and delve into conscious rap, ‘Edna’ is a largely playful representation of UK popular music today. ‘Try Me’ is Headie’s second duet with fellow Tottenham boy Skepta, a bouncy future-grime track. British humour meets trap-wave on ’21 Gun Salute’ featuring Young Adz of D-Block Europe (“They come like Miss Trunchball… call me Ron Weasley”), a track that encompasses Headie’s impressive versatility.
Headie One is the kind of MC who can compare himself to Filipino boxer and politician Manny Pacquiao one minute, and slip into slinky R&B on ‘You Me’ with Mahalia the next. ‘Edna’ is proof that he’s the unmistakeable, global ‘King of drill’, and much more besides.
Release date: October 9
Record label: Reckless Records