Global pandemic aside, Tottenham rapper Headie One has had an eventful calendar year. After a chart-puncturing 2019, the 26-year-old has since been incarcerated on a weapons charge, flown home early from prison on a private jet, released the polarising project GANG with Fred again, linked up with Drake and launched his own record label. EDNA, which is dedicated to his late mother, is positioned as his first proper studio album, and it feels like his whole career has been leading up to this moment.
While he’s always insisted that he has an open mind when it comes to beats, Headie One has usually anchored his sound to the dark, wobbly bass and rattling drums of UK drill. Here, though, he loads the 20-track EDNA with an assortment of genre experiments, save for a handful of more straightforward drill cuts (Only You Freestyle, Triple Science, The Light). Shedding the drill-meets-electronica formula of GANG (which featured the likes of FKA twigs and Jamie xx, as well as Brian Eno remix) EDNA instead builds upon the rap chameleon-ism he exhibited on last year’s excellent mixtape Music X Road.
Headie One’s baritone voice, his intimate half-sung hooks, and his serpentine flows make him instantly recognisable to the ear. Where other artists succumb to copycatting trends, Headie engraves every type of track with his distinctive vocal style. EDNA is a mixed-bag pursuit of the sweet point between commercial rap, drill, and Afro-bashment. As a rapper, Headie remains wholly unpredictable. He often delays and stutters his delivery in short bursts, crumpling the tails of bars into weird, octave-shifting shapes. Other times he sounds like he’s humming menacing lullabies. But much of his success can be traced back to his abilities as a clear, direct, economical, and contemplative writer.
Raw rap balladry is a mode in which he is increasingly comfortable. In spots, EDNA captures someone wrestling intently with their own contradictions. On Therapy, one of EDNA’s standouts, Headie opens up about psychic wounds and bouts of depression with backing of spindly guitar plucks and a weeping vocal sample. Cleverly written and rich in juxtaposition, his verses here reveal that he swings between social and antisocial, lawful and unlawful, formal and informal, “not cordial and cordial”. He also recalls the bleaker details of his past with potency. Triple Science sees him rap about lying under oath, tense interrogation rooms, duffel bags filled with hundreds of £5 notes, and flushing drugs down toilet drains.
Album closer Cold is a no-holds-barred depiction of his life – and, interestingly, a less treacherous life unlived. Every crack and strain in Headie’s voice is on display as he daydreams a different life trajectory (“I used to want to play footie /I used to pray I would get scouted”) and laments the widespread closure of youth clubs under austerity.
Most songs on EDNA bear some risk, particularly for an artist who descends from the UK’s mean-mugging road rap lineage. After all, Headie and many of his peers have gone to great pains to explain how drill music is largely a getaway vehicle fleeing cyclical violence and poverty. It is a fool’s errand, then, believing drill purism to be achievable, or even desirable, in perpetuity. This is a saga as old as rap itself. Why would you make drill when you’re not drilling anymore? By itself, though, Headie’s voice – tuneful and articulate, loud and witty, Black and British – is triumphant enough.
EDNA is out October 9th via Relentless