On his diverse, Technicolor new mixtape, Headie One insists, “They say that I’m the king of drill / I’m doing it all”. The line crops up on ‘Both’, a track that was playlisted on Radio One and – brilliantly and unexpectedly – samples Ultra Naté’s 1998 dance anthem ‘Free’. These aren’t necessarily the credentials you’d associate with an artist formerly defined by the drill scene, but the north London rapper is its breakout star, having scored a top 10 smash with the Dave collaboration ’18 Hunna’, a song so assured it could only become a crossover hit.
And on ‘Music x Road’, Irvin Adjei’s seventh mixtape in five years, he’s keen to impress that his talent can’t be contained by the rap sub-genre that strikes fear into the hearts of Daily Mail readers. The Chicago-born, trap-influenced sound has been unfairly blamed for all manner of social ills in its adopted home of London and, yes, that’s all nonsense, but the point is that there’s a celebratory tone to Headie’s first full-length solo release since ‘18Hunna’.
Often far from drill, ‘Music x Road’ is a record that features the thumping ‘Interlude 100 Bottles’, a minimalist, dance-inspired sub-two-minute track with jubilant backing vocals. When the song rolls into ‘Home’, with its chipmunk vocal sample and Headie’s frank admission, “I want nothing but you when I get home”, the 24-year-old’s versatility is indisputable. The Stefflon Don collaboration ‘Swerve’ is a glossy hip-hop banger backed by trap beats and threaded through with buoyant keys, a million miles from the gritty social realism of ‘18Hunna’.
Lyrically, though, there is a contradiction here. The sounds are sunnier – there’s something that sounds suspiciously like a panpipe on the languid ‘Chanel’ featuring Birmingham MC Lotto Ash – but the lyrics remain rooted in Headie’s difficult past. “Life was hard… So I trapped until I made it lovely,” he admits on the aforementioned track. It’s even more arresting when he puts it baldly: “I come from poverty.” ‘Chanel’, meanwhile, is a paean to designer clothes set to a wilfully commercial rap ballad, an indication of Headie One’s towering ambition.
’18Hunna’ does appear on the tracklist but – surprisingly, considering its brilliance – the song’s perfection of the drill sound is dwarfed, for instance, by the shimmering pop sonics of ‘Rubbery Bands’ and the widescreen optimism they represent. This is a record that defies expectations.
Around half of ‘Music x Road’ consists of the drill Headie’s become associated with. No-one could argue with the hard-boiled ‘Ball In Peace’ or the austere ‘Kettle Water’: he has this stuff hands-down now. But what is really impressive about ‘Music x Road’ is its breadth of sound and ambition. You listen to the warped soul sample on ‘Home’ and think: he can go anywhere he wants.