Headie One: Edna review – drill king moves forward

The drill king’s debut album could be a breakthrough moment

Sometimes, Irving Adjei feels like a motherless child. The rapper’s first album proper is dedicated to Edna Adjei, who died when he was a child, and the things he wishes she had taught him – specifically, forgiveness. He has her image tattooed on his arm.

The album’s first track, Teach Me, feels her absence acutely, looking back at Adjei’s chequered youth on the storied Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, with a sister and a father who struggled as his son went off the rails. “He start to wish he aborted me,” considers Headie One, the rapper Adjei became. Already prolific, Edna is his second major release this year, following the genre-busting mixtape, Gang, released in April. Though he’s best known as a drill artist, a controversial variant on hip-hop more minimal and bleak than grime, Gang lunged away from drill’s cold insularity towards tunes, experimentation and a broader audience (Jamie xx and FKA twigs made guest appearances).

Buoyed by a Drake guest spot, Edna looks set to become Headie One’s real breakthrough, however. It boasts 20 tracks, all flaunting different concentrations of high-spec, trap-drill-R&B; a vein of pensive stocktaking pulses through it. A snippet of a video teased on social media recently found Adjei partying somewhere balmy. The vibe on the feelgood Princess Cuts draws from dancehall; the title refers to a style of diamond. In the video, Adjei is smiling, doing what social media comments have identified as a “Ghanaian uncle” dance.

Although not as arty as Gang, Edna travels a significant distance from his previous fast-paced accounts of life on the streets. Thanks to his verbal skills, Adjei’s crossover prospects were already hot last year after another successful mixtape, Music x Road, and a guest spot on Stormzy’s Heavy Is the Head. Meanwhile, a Drake cut from late 2019, War, prompted claims that Drake had aped Headie One’s flow.

Drake takes his fairy-godfathering of UK talent seriously: last July, he launched Headie One into the stratosphere when the two released an even-handed collaboration, Only You Freestyle and Drake declared Headie “the best drill artist in the world”. Until then, Headie had been a cult figure, infamous for a viral track, 2018’s Know Better, which made prolific use of “sh!” to mute the salient details of a tit-for-tat attack on a rival gang, avoiding self-incrimination and censorship.

Drill’s granular score-settling, and the extent to which it expands pain and perpetuates criminal violence, has provoked a great deal of public agonising in recent times. The Metropolitan police have controversially criminalised swaths of the genre. Switching from specificity to generality has been one way for drill to adapt. The chorus of Headie One’s mainstream breakthrough, 2019’s 18Hunna, outlined a younger gang member’s misstep. “My little bro shitted out the pack and flushed it, tell me how he could he be so clumsy?” it went – gritty, but without the incitement to postcode warfare that might trigger law enforcement.

Adjei has no intention of going back to prison (he was jailed for six months in January for carrying a knife). Rather, he is highly motivated to parlay his notoriety into legitimate income streams - he’s started his own label. A key track on Edna, Breathing, opens with a list of his friends who are still in jail and details how Headie is trying to right his wrongs, to “live differently”, despite scorn from those still involved in his old life.

Watch the video for Ain’t It Different by Headie One ft Stormzy and AJ Tracey.

There is mileage to be had, too, in mining the good times Headie is having right now, rather than the grim times he spent working county lines, the birthdays in prison spent making ad hoc cake out of digestives. On Hear No Evil, he has the greatest of alibis: he was “in Dubai eating seafood”. A pair of more loved-up tracks with female guests such as Mahalia (You/Me) and Nigerian siren Halle (Everything Nice) set Headie One as a loverman. Adjei audibly grins his way through bars in which he mixes drinks and lays on the charm, albeit unevenly.

But Edna is forced into a dance, of sorts, with Adjei’s past. Throughout, he reaffirms his status both as a driller and as a man who “made a killing both in the countryside and in the city” while warning off his youngers and trying not to be that guy any more. A significant number of tracks here go hard with the fanbase and these productions significantly outperform the string-laden mea culpas, such as The Light, for musical wit and verve.

No sooner has Adjei shared the psalm with which he lulled his troubled mind to sleep (Psalm 35 – not too hot on forgiveness) than he’s trading trapping bon mots with M Huncho on Bumpy Ride, or sharing his street knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology on Triple Science.

On Ain’t It Different, a three-way UK all-star hit with Stormzy and AJ Tracey, Headie is all too aware of the how he is perceived. “Apparently all I talk is prison,” he sighs, “but I don’t know no different.”

A workable entente between past and future is struck on Edna. Headie One gets to flex, collaborate and try new things, while Irving Adjei feels safe enough to show vulnerability. Even on Therapy, his trademark style remains direct. “It’s still PTSD when I hear that nee-naw,” he spits.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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