The debut album from the undisputed king of UK drill, Headie One, shows a definite growth in maturity, but generic production and multitude of filler tracks ultimately prevent it from reaching the greatness the rapper is certainly capable of. Alex Newport takes a probe to the twenty-track project, dedicated to his late mother, and seeped in arresting introspectiveness.
Headie One first unveiled himself as an artist to be taken seriously in 2018, when drill anthem Know Better featuring fellow OFB member Rv went viral across the UK drill scene. A lot has changed since then, the sliding 808's and violent lyrics that have become a staple of the genre are now mainstream. Unknown T's Homerton B became the first drill song to chart in 2018, Russ & Tion Wayne reached number seven with Keisha & Becky (with a lot of help from an all star remix which put Manchester- native Aitch on the map) and Drake, arguably the biggest artist in the world, has dropped multiple singles drawing huge drill influence including Only You Freestyle, one the strongest tracks on EDNA.
A style which previously was isolated to the streets of London has gone international. The late Pop Smoke’s embrace of UK drill beats courtesy of UK producer 808melo is the best example of this, tracks such as Dior and Welcome To The Party (featuring UK legend Skepta on a remix) catapulted him to stardom before his tragic and violent death in 2019.
‘Drill has always been a genre which prides itself on clever punchlines and gritty references to rapper's often violent realities.’
EDNA sees Headie attempt to move away from his drill roots on a lot of tracks, which is unsurprising given his 2019 interview with The Standard where he commented: “If I just stuck to drill, I’d be holding back my talent.” With the formula for making a drill song often leads to repetition being hard to avoid between tracks, it is easy to see where the young rapper is coming from. This admirable approach which has worked out well for fellow rising star Unknown T on his debut mixtape Rise Above Hate. However, at moments on EDNA, the direction Headie has moved in fails to work with his strengths. It is important to note that the main problem is rarely Headie himself, but instead the beats he chooses to rap on when he moves away from record's renowned drill sound.
The non-drill beats on the album mainly consist of the bouncy 808's popularised by DaBaby and his go-to producer Jetsonmade over in the US. This beat-mixing style has been divisive however, as the high bouncy 808's, whilst very loud, don’t actually provide much bass at all, leaving a lot of empty space in the lower end of the production. Whilst DaBaby’s low-pitched vocals mask this somewhat, Headie’s higher intonation makes it especially notable. 21 Gun Salute and Bumpy Ride are the record's best examples of this. M Huncho and Young Adz deliver solid features, but the production just lacks any real drive. Other mixing problems are found in lead single Ain’t It Different, which features appearances from AJ Tracey and Stormzy. With such star-studded link-up's, it should be the best on the album, but an awkward Crazy Town sample combined with poor drum sound quality lead to a track which feels notably unfinished.
Luckily, this is still a drill album. The dark, nihilistic style makes up the vast majority of the tracklist and the drill songs that are here are simply brilliant. Parlez-Vouz Anglais, featuring Aitch, feels like a sequel to Digdat and Aitch’s blustering Ei8ht Mile, with the rappers going back-and-forth in a bar-heavy banger that showcases both artists' incredible lyrical ability. In terms of lyricism, there is a vast growth in maturity compared to Headie's previous work. Drill has always been a genre which prides itself on clever punchlines and gritty references to rapper's often violent realities, and provides a way for young people of colour to lift themselves out of the poverty and violence that cruelly engulfed much of their upbringing. Drill is for the UK what NWA was to late 80's America.
On top of this, EDNA see’s Headie explore lyrical concepts previously unseen on previous mixtapes. The rapper's mum (the albums namesake) passed away when he was young, and is referenced directly on Psalm 35 - a track about the verse that gave him hope during a prison sentence for knife possession. “Edna watchin’ over me / neither let them wink with eye / they’re gonna hate without cause,” he raps urgently, referring to the mindless violence that runs rife in London.
‘The fact that EDNA bagged a Drake feature is indicative of the international outreach that drill is gaining right now.’
You/Me is a self-reflective slow jam where Headie reflects on his experiences with women. The surprisingly introspective bar, “sometimes I feel like every girl in the world is into me, is this what they call toxic masculinity?” is not one you'd expect to hear on a drill project, but brings a sense of rawness and humanity to a record that threatens at times to run away with itself. Strong lyrical themes run throughout the collection, and are reinforced by Headie’s unpredictable dropping of clever one-liners. Only You Freestyle, which again features Drake, is a masterclass from Headie in this aspect; the best examples being “CPS murder in the dock like Rupert,” and “I’m tryna take this live ting to my juvies / so the beef is fryin, they ain’t tryna stop slidin, Toosie, Toosie.”
Normally Drake sounds out of place on a drill beat, but here, his unique and exhilarating use of Arabic flow provides a refreshing switch-up. The fact that EDNA bagged a Drake feature is indicative of the international outreach that drill is gaining right now, and is further emphasised by an impressive appearance from Atlanta rapper Future. Canadian protégé WondaGurl provides an additional Mike Dean-esque synth backdrop, whilst Future supplements his unique slurred vocal style with a UK-inspired flow. Gliding over the beat, it leads to a fantastic collaboration that no one could have predicted. Kenny Beats is here as the final US collaboration, though unfortunately he somewhat phones-in the beat, and the boring production lacks any sort of real melody (it’s primarily a whistle sample which seems to be accidentally mixed to the left side).
Overall, Headie One’s EDNA is a mixed bag. Whilst some of his best material is here in the form of tracks such as The Light and Parlez-Vous Anglais, lacklustre production and the sheer length of the project leads to a lot of vapid repetition. There’s no doubt that it’ll do impressive numbers, but perhaps more was expected from the king of drill.
Words by: Alex Newport
Edited by: Alex Duke