Review: Headie One, ‘Edna’

Headie One’s debut album is an artistic voyage that not just takes him to the pinnacle of UK rap but to global stardom.

The most significant development of British hip hop over the last decade is artists’ ability to consistently produce organic hits. For Headie One, the last four years of his career has spawned classic drill tracks and tapes. If we were to magnify on the Tottenham native even further, he led the commercial charge for the most notoriously misunderstood genres of the generation. But it is easy for a drill rapper to get stuck in a box. Mixtapes such as Drillers x Trappers, The One and The One Two were singularly drill, until Headie One broadened his horizons with the top 5 mixtape Music x Road and the polarising experimental EP, GANG. Mixtapes provide a detachment from burden, so it is time for Headie One to demonstrate whether he can deliver on the big stage.

On his 2019 mixtape, Headie One warred between choosing music or road. On Edna, it’s clear he’s picked music. Titled after his late mother, Headie’s debut is a transparent testament to his artistic abilities in pushing the envelope beyond just the scope of drill.

Edna is here to make statements of authority and development. The former arrive in tune with the aptly prescribed drill tracks, leaving the legroom for Headie to surprise listeners in the album themes and musical detours. On the album’s opening track, “Teach Me”, Headie One strives to learn forgiveness from his mother in a world of gang conflict. Trauma is personified on “Psalm 35”, cracking the shell of Headie to uncover cerebration we have never heard from the rapper before. Edna creates these intimate moments with the listener early on, setting a tone just how a debut should.

The curation on Edna makes it clear Headie knew it was album time. In its 20 tracks lies a conscious blend of styles – drill, hip hop, trap, R&B, afroswing – that converge cohesively. In essence there is something for everyone here, but nothing is shoehorned in; a testament to Headie One’s musical bravery and ability to find a harmonious balance.

A handful of songs are destined for the charts. The suave “Princess Cuts” with Young T & Bugsey struts with the most addictive hook of the album. There is a classy groove to “Parlez-Vous Anglais” that matches the track’s title and the bravado back-and-forths of Headie One and Aitch. The single “Ain’t It Different” with fellow Brit giants Stormzy and AJ Tracey has already proven its appeal in becoming One’s highest-charting single to date. Even the trap offerings are right in line with the album’s focus on authentic catchiness (“Psalm 35”, “Bumpy Ride”).

When Edna is in drill mode it is characteristically thunderous. “If I ever took that oath, I’m lying / Even when I’m wrong I’m tryna stay righteous”, Headie One raps on “Triple Science”, a high-grade drill song with belligerent flows and slick lines that are the uniform of a Headie track (“Bro was the tightest, he sent man a fiver / I guess it’s the thought that counts”). It is coupled with “The Light”, a reminiscence of the trap life contrasted with Headie’s flourishing turnaround (“My past and the bujj is dark but I guess now I can see the light”). In moments like these Headie provides drill fans the explosions they are looking for while cruising through gripping anecdotes to make up the substance of Edna.

Those unfamiliar with Headie One must look no further than the guest appearances to fathom that the Brit is at the apex. Drill admirer Drake surfs across the first half of “Only You Freestyle”, once again showcasing he always seems to have his finger on the pulse before the pot even brews. Future delivers one of his strongest guest appearances of the year on “Hear No Evil”, bringing all the charisma needed for a transatlantic collaboration. Skepta on “Try Me” is the second instance of the Tottenham talents colliding, who is pushed to match the reckless flows of Headie One (“Try Me”). Such collaborations yield effortless chemistry.

Among all the triple beams and dreams, Headie doesn’t fail to remind you the crux of the album; struggle and forgiveness. The introspective tracks are yet another avenue that diverge and somehow end at the same destination (“Breathing”, “Therapy”, “Cold”, “Five Figures”). Closing track “Cold” particularly symbolises the numb character of Headie One as a human being, desensitised by his harsh environment and above all the passing of his mother when he was just 3 years old. With this final piece, Headie One provides the listener with all the explanations, even if not every song contributes to the puzzle (“F U Pay Me”).

Insight into a drill artist’s spirit is rare. After multiple mixtapes, Headie One understands the introspection and cohesion needed for a debut album. With Edna, Headie One completes his artistic voyage to the pinnacle of UK rap, taking the risks necessary to elevate from local star to worldwide notoriety.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Best tracks: “Triple Science”, “The Light”, “Hear No Evil”, “Princess Cuts”, “Only You Freestyle”, “Teach Me”, “Five Figures”, “Cold”