Last October, Headie One claimed a slice of history when his debut album Edna went to number one on the UK chart. He celebrated his achievement at his mother’s graveside, where he rested his award from the Official Charts Company on her black marble headstone and took a picture. He named the album after her—Edna Duah, the epitaph reads—and her image runs throughout. On opener “Teach Me,” he asks her to teach him forgiveness, while “Psalm 35” finds him gazing up at his mother, her presence a steady guide. But this isn’t a project focused solely on grief or mourning. Edna instead provides an anchor point in this richly drawn portrait of a young man feeling his way through life.
Headie’s appeal stems as much from the unflinching realism in his lyrics as it does his wry-smiling, understated demeanor. He blends street-beef references with lingering memories of the UK’s state school curriculum, all carried off without so much as a wink. “My young boy got the stick like Moses with the Israelites,” he offers as an intro on slinky Afrofunk number “Princess Cuts.” He’s witty, too, and not afraid to poke fun at himself: He started out rapping as Headz, after being told his bonce looks like a 50-pence piece.
This charisma helped him parlay features from two of the biggest rappers in the world—Future paints by numbers on “Hear No Evil,” and Drake slips awkwardly off the beat on “Only You Freestyle”—as well as a who’s who of the UK’s sparkling domestic rap scene, with AJ Tracey, Stormzy, Young Adz, Ivorian Doll, Skepta, and Aitch all appearing. Kaash Paige’s vocal acrobatics on “Cold” prove a fitting foil for Headie’s stretched monotone. But for the most part, Headie sounds best on his own. On “Mainstream” he encapsulates the dichotomies of leaving the streets for fame with crisp succinctness: Lines like “Mainstream rapper, autographs on the wing/Mainstream rapper, but my arse full of cling” distill in a handful of syllables what others have wrestled with over years and entire albums.
Headie’s frank and unfettered approach—much like his so-laidback-he’s-almost-comatose flow—allows his taut lyricism to spring forth. His verses on “Breathing”—calmly delivered, full of unfiltered reflection and frank self-assessment—offer the sort of insights that political focus groups could only dream of conjuring. However, he’s quick to move beyond limiting narratives of what drill music represents. The immediately familiar Lady Saw and Red Hot Chili Pepper samples on lead single “Ain’t It Different” embed the track in a mainstream pop context, along with Headie’s recollections of whipping crack, faking urine samples, and baking cakes from Digestive biscuits in prison. References to Harry Potter, Game Of Thrones, and Premier League soccer (one of Headie’s favorite subjects; a budding career of his own was cut short by an ankle injury) give a relatable frame to his otherwise shocking personal stories. It dismantles the idea that the struggles Headie has endured took place in an alternate reality.
The original version of Edna packed 20 tracks and often felt bloated—the clumsy, syllable-cramming “21 Gun Salute” could go, for a start. This deluxe edition adds another eight. “Hung Jury” proves a highlight—lines like “Have you ever felt guilty for being free?” lavish in melancholy—but otherwise, the expanded edition does more to prove the original should have been shorter. Ultimately, this is a shame. But whether you blame the bloat on streaming or impatience on Headie’s part, there’s plenty here to make a mama proud.
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