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Headie One’s New Mixtape Sounds Like the Future of Drill Music

The U.K. rapper’s collaboration with producer Fred Again is the work of someone trying to be a capital-A Artist

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.

2019’s Hoodies All Summer was Kano’s overtly political follow-up to the Mercury-nominated, Mobo-winning Made in the Manor. Manor was one of the first major releases of the grime renaissance of the mid-2010s, but Kano used the genre’s first genuine mainstream embrace to look backward and reflect on his roots in the East End. Hoodies is less immediate than its predecessor, but it has larger concerns and serves as a missive for the unheeded black and brown peoples across London—you could also argue, with its loose song structure and wildly diverse sonic palette, that it’s the kind of album that can only exist once a genre reaches a certain point of “maturation.” Hoodies, which finds Kano stepping fully into the role of wizened elder statesman, is a triumph of both form and substance: see the album closer, “SYM.” “Suck your mum,” Kano sings. “Suck your mother if you think these niggas love these cuffs and riots.”

In early November, on the Hoodies press run, Kano was asked by Genius to survey the work of the first real generation of U.K. vocal/rap artists who grew up primarily on vocal/rap music from the U.K. If his Manor album arrived during grime 2.0, Hoodies came during the genre’s third wave: Artists have mostly shed the video game bloops for higher production values, long-gestating subgenres are coming into their own, and even American music fans are beginning to hear the differences between, say, a rapper from the North, like Aitch or Slowthai, and a Southern one, like Poundz or AJ Tracey. When he got to Headie One’s “Both,” a standout single from last year’s Music x Road, Kano said that while he “liked the chune,” Headie “wasn’t reinventing the wheel.”

Putting my personal feelings aside—Music x Road was my album of the year last year, if we’re taking that to mean the album you were most attached to and not the “best”; Key Glock and Young Dolph’s Dumb and Dumber was a close second—last year, you could say that Headie One was just doing a really good version of stuff that people had been doing for a while. However, there were points where it tried to be more than a drill record. While “All Day,” “Kettle Water,” “Ball in Peace,” and roughly half the tracks on the album are the standard murky, punishing fare the Tottenham rapper is known for, elsewhere brighter and frankly dancier production pushes his music into more compelling places. Funnily enough “Both,” which samples Ultra Nate’s ’90s house hit “Free,” neatly demonstrates Headie’s heterodox ambitions and willingness to push the envelope.

Gang, his new collaborative mixtape with Fred Again, is a logical, yet wholly unexpected next step. Speaking to The Evening Standard last November, incidentally the very same day that Genius Kano video was published, Headie said that if he were to stick to drill, “I’d be holding back my talent.” Over Gang’s 22 minutes and eight tracks, Fred Again, a pop producer who’s worked with the likes of Stormzy and Octavian, but also Brian Eno, Charli XCX, Ellie Goulding, and Little Mix, proves the perfect foil for a drill rapper who desperately wants to be an artist. There are only four actual new songs here—the tape begins with “Told,” a moody reprise of “Music x Road”; “Charades” has been out since early February; and there are two interludes.

If there’s a song on Gang in which Headie does reinvent the wheel, it’s “Smoke,” a giant, glitchy, claustrophobic collaboration with Jamie xx where Headie presides over a dance party that he’s too bereft to enjoy. There’s a pulsating drum progression that gains in speed until it spins off its axis entirely just before the second verse, where Headie is at his most indignant: “Hugs, no hugs, I had to hug my thoughts / Nobody come to court, I just done a couple months on tour.” More than the sheer bombast of it, the most flooring thing about “Smoke”—about Gang, really—is Headie’s adaptability: Rather than making a dance record, he brought dance music to him, and in the process made something that sounds a lot like the future.

Now for some recommendations:

“Rags2Riches,” Rod Wave

Pray 4 Love is Floridia rap-sanger Rod Wave’s third release in a fiscal year—he released his breakout mixtape PTSD in June 2019, and followed that with Ghetto Gospel, his debut album, in November. Wave, like his mentor Kevin Gates, is a graduate of the school of absolutely miserable Southern rap vocalists, and often the heartbreak of Pray 4 Love can feel a little actorly—“this life done beat on me,” Wave croons on “Ribbon in the Sky.” By contrast, “Rags2Riches,” which arrives around the album’s halfway point, is inspiring without being so melodramatic.

“Tycoon,” Future

It’s looking more and more like “Life Is Good” was the lead single for an eventual Future solo album—the “Tycoon” music video came out at the end of March, but last week, the song made its way to streaming services, so you can listen to it at your leisure. There’s a mopey piano, booming drums, and Future balancing his pleasure-seeking with his paranoia, per usual: “I’m gettin’ the passport stamped we goin’ steady,” he says, “they try to cut a nigga throat off with machete.”

“Brooklyn Bridge to the Chorus,” the Strokes

My colleague Cory McConnell had a good take about the Strokes’ new direction, which seems to be yielding solid single after solid single: The New Abnormal should be the fun, genre-spanning power-pop album that Angles was supposed to be.