"GANG"'s genre-busting experiments appeared like a neon signpost, signalling the "critically acclaimed" direction Headie One swerved into with his latest project. His artistic ambitions were hard to fault, but the results could've won a Carbuncle Cup. For his debut album, Edna, he makes the smart decision to scrap those grand designs completely. Instead Headie One, real name Irving Adjei, builds on the road-tested drill from Drillers x Trappers 1 & 2 and the musicality of Music X Road, creating a much more conventional structure that still manages to stand out.
"Ain't It Different" is a street banger at its core, but the inclusion of AJ Tracey and Stormzy was a savvy bit of chart baiting. As were the Lady Saw and Crazy Town samples (courtesy of Toddla T and FRED Again) which practically guaranteed heavy playlist potential. The lead single is the spiritual successor to Music X Road's Ultra Nate-inspired "Home" and can be seen as a microcosm for Edna; an album with production that finds the middle ground between familiarity and innovation, with a star-studded lineup whose success is a sum its parts.
It helps that Headie One is easily the star of the show here, outshining his peers on "Ain't It Different" and most other songs where he shares the spotlight (with a few notable exceptions). Verses from Future ("Hear No Evil") and Drake ("Only One Freestyle) run on pure adrenaline, and none of the phoned-in indifference characterising transatlantic collabs in the past. They bend to the will of the album, but don't break, reminding us of the impact UK rap on its own terms has had on the world stage. Their approach stands in sharp contrast to Kenny Beats and his jarring Baby-esque production on "F U Pay Me," which has the knock-on effect of relegating Ivorian Doll's memorable verse to one of the more skippable tracks. The best guest features have a fluidity to them. Whether it's M-Huncho following Headie's rhyme scheme into his chorus on the backmasked moodiness of "Bumpy Ride," or Aitch channeling the synergy of their braggadocious back-to-back on the irresistibly lavish "Parlez Vouz Anglais," and almost spinning Headie off the track in the process. Past collaborators Skepta and duo Young T and Bugsey also seize the moment, with Skepta stealing the show on "Try Me," and the Midlands hook kings providing a lilting chorus for "Princess Cuts," a feel-good anthem propelled by the bouncy, gleaming sound its producers I.O. and TSB made gold on The Big Conspiracy.
"The theme of the album is that there's a lot of deep and negative stuff that I have been through," Headie said in an interview with Crack. There's a palpable lust for life throughout the 20 tracks, but Edna is at its most arresting when Headie details his journey from custodial sentences to commercial success with unflinching candor. Bars like "want a 1,000 stones nah we never knew about seven pounds an hour, black lives matter, but in the hood this wap means power" on "Bumpy Ride" and "mainstream rapper but my arse full of cling" from album standout "Mainstream" distill the contradictions and clever wordplay of his writing to its essence. Revenge and glorification one line, remorse and guilt the next. "Growing up there was so much things it was hard to say no to" he laments near the end of Edna on "Therapy," bringing us full circle from the frank observation ("They looked down on me that was hypocrisy, coming from poverty, blame the economy") he spelt out on textbook Serious Rap Album Intro "Teach Me."
After getting a mixed reception from die hard drill fans with his last release, Headie One delivers on the promise of a sonically challenging drill album without alienating his core fanbase. Underground legends like Gottionem, Madara Beats, 169 and proven hitmakers I.O. TSB, Nyge and M1 On The Beat rise to the occasion with their production, embossing tremulous 808 slides, pitched synths and minimal chord progressions with smatterings of Spanish guitar, ghostly vocal snatches and what might even be a didgeridoo plug in. As a rapper Headie's in rare form, switching between staccato and silkier vocals, while showcasing a newfound willingness to reflect alongside the wry boasts and threats he made his name with. All these elements help make Edna a massive coup for both artist and scene; a chart-topping watermark to represent a genre almost criminalised out of existence.