Headie One first came to my attention with last January’s ‘Losses & Winnings’, one of the best fresh home tunes in recent memory, but it took the Tottenham rapper almost a year to build the buzz necessary to reach YouTube platinum status (perhaps the baitest sign of impending success, Fire In The Booth notwithstanding). For those not privy to the ”unsigned hype” stimulus package, or lucky enough to debut with a tune that can bend twitter timelines at will, acquiring an organic fanbase in UK Rap means making a point of entry through the ever-popular freestyle platforms which anchor the scene.
Headie One, frequent tag team partner RV and eventually the entire OFB family have dropped music videos and mixtapes with extreme gusto over the past eleven months, using the twin currencies of bodies of work and practice hours shelling. GRM and Relentless Records got involved late last winter, but it’s unsurprising that the single ‘Golden Boot’ – rather than a murderers row of freestyles – attracted widespread suitors. If not for its drill DNA, the beat would sound identical to the stuff Southside, Metro Boomin et al. have been providing Future to float all over. But instead of that cadre you have MKThePlug and M1onthebeat providing an ominous soundtrack which finds the perfect foil in the paranoid motorway missions across county lines and spooky backstrips as a place of business Headie raps about.
All of the elements which make ‘The One’ – his long awaited solo mixtape following last years group projects ‘Sticks & Stones’ and ‘Drillers X Trappers’ – an engaging listen can be glimpsed in one way or another on ‘Golden Boot’. Headie’s delivery on the track swings between firm threats and a playful sing song, as football, wrestling and other pop culture references are repackaged for road activity. It’s catchy, barely concealed criminality, cloaked in chicane use of melody, clever turn of phrases, and slang esoteric enough to fly by foreign bodies on a first listen. What shouldn’t be hard to understand is why the song is an underground hit; Headie One is a rappers rapper, blessed with the ability to pull hooks out of nothing.
This much is clear from the title track on ‘The One’, which features M1onthebeat supplying little more than placeless but propulsive percussion, a basic chord progression and a distant church bell for Heads to wave over. It’s a minimal canvas that works well as the quintessential serious rap album intro, setting the scene for what’s to come with lines like “cause I live what I rap ‘bout, nearly two years straight tuna baguettes for lunch we aint know about hash browns”. Next track ‘Golden Boot’ gets things going in earnest and sounds almost jovial in comparison, but the tune is a rollercoaster by design, with a highlight reel of unrelenting adlibs, bridges and quotables making it sound like a springboard from the vengeful confessionals which characterise the intro into the final act of the rags to riches tropes the subject matter is steeped in.
Sequencing is an often overlooked aspect of drill tapes, but by following a restrained opener with a virtual singalong, ‘The One’ avoids suffering a lull in energy so early in the proceedings. M1onthebeat is credited with the first two cuts, and handles the lionshare of production with notable contributions coming from Sykes Beatz, Rayy Ransum, NatzLdn and 808 Melo amongst others. The producers save some of their more interesting instrumentals for the final stretch of the tape, while the first half offers enough variation on the usual piano/violin driven dramatics drill normally resides in to keep things sounding fresh. Two early standouts which fall into that categorisation are ‘’Ganging’ featuring RV and ‘Take Risks’, produced by StaxOnTheBeat and M1OnTheBeat respectively. RV – the iron fist to Headie’s velvet glove approach – runs amok during his first cameo, and ‘Take Risks’ features an inspired performance by Headie, bursting at the seams with life that turns a somewhat dull cathedral dirge into something infinitely more enjoyable.
There are some obvious missteps along the way, but at a sensible fourteen tracks long ‘The One’ absorbs its weaker moments by keeping them out of the way with keen spacing. ‘Cargo’ featuring Sleeks from Section Boyz and ‘Caution’ featuring Colo stand out as two of the least essential tracks on offer, but they appear at opposite ends of the 52 minute runtime. ’Secure The Bag’ featuring M-Huncho doesn’t soar quite as high as the song reaches for, but it’s tucked in between ‘Different Sorts’ where M1onthebeat’s cybertronic ‘Carns Hill type beat’ is made all the more apparent by clinical contributions from Dimzy and Monkey, and ‘Know Better’, which serves as a clutch last minute replacement for ‘Oneder’; a triumphant chopshop rework of Adele vocals by Sykezbeatz that couldn’t make it to Spotify. Both tracks come in the midst of a strong stretch that includes murky, next single ‘One Leanin’ and Loski from Harlem Spartans supplying one of the features that does land on the ultra dramatic ‘Dues’, whose clash at the coliseum theatrics courtesy of Sykezbeatz are mirrored with equally impressive results by Abel The Plug on final track ‘Intent’.
‘Free Bradders’ represents another high mark relegated to the back end of the tape, and the bouncy posse cut is a clear example of why more in house efforts should be included on Headie’s next project. The keys by Mike Beatz are jangly enough to bring in New Years Day, and the chemistry between himself, RV, Skat, Kash and Tugzy (best felt on this ridiculous Westwood Crib Session) is incandescent. RVs verse on ‘Know Better’ nicely contrasts the shock value of his earlier contribution to the tape with the blatant rap skills he possesses, but the contrast or lack of contrast in subject matter from both verses demonstrates the crux of this listen.
Zero concessions are made in the way of content, which is mostly confined to the devil in the details depictions of drug dealing, gang violence and other social ills not worth moralising. Yet at a time when UK drill rappers are starting to resemble US mumble rappers in their dive for bars at the bottom of the barrel, it’s refreshing hearing someone pursue these themes with vigor and actual skill; not bound to stretching the limits of how many words they can rhyme with ching. Still your mileage may vary. K Trap is another rapper who stands out as a lyrical throwback, and his appearance on the final track ‘Intent’ (the sequel to ‘No Convo’ on his similarly balanced mixtape ‘The Last Whip’) bookends a body of work by an artist who’s managed to stretch the notion of what a “road rapper” can achieve while not stepping out of the box at all.
Like Nines’ chart success with ‘One Foot Out’, Headie One’s come up should encourage his peers to see what is attainable when workrate has an end product.
Listen to ‘The One’ on Spotify now.