The Drop: The Best UK Drill of April 2020

The Drop returns with a collaborative effort between Headie One and Fred Again, new tracks from KO and Joy Orbison, and more.
By    May 4, 2020

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Ethan Herlock has been going to the grocery store wearing lucha libre masks.

Headie One & Fred Again… – GANG

While the rapper born Irving Adjei, was being championed as a flag bearer in the UK drill scene, he was also trojan-horsing sonic textures and easter eggs that shouldn’t have worked within the strict boundaries of the genre. His mixtape run between 2017-2019 became canon and left footprints for others to follow: the shape-shifting, Music x Road, that sampled Faith Evans and crooned about his wifey falling asleep in his designer jumpers; the gutter-heavy, The One and The One Two, that showcased his distinctive, snake-like rapping style that also made shushing in a drill track sound cool; drill’s incarnation of the Hollowman Meetz Blade series with OFB’s consigliere RV, Drillers x Trappers. He succeeded with his gift for merging Scarface braggadocio with morose lyricism, his ability to bend genres and a Giggs-like consistency and care in penning verses, one-liners and ad-libs that are unforgettable as hooks.

“How her boyfriend pissed because she knows my tunes?” He jokes on The One’s Golden Boot, and is knowingly in on the answer; Anthony Joshua bumps his music on Snapchat, a diss track responding to a viral incident that played out on the Gigi Hadid-walked runways of a Burberry show. Even Brian Eno just remixed one of his songs. 

It seems like prophecy coming true: “King of drill, rap, trap, I’m doing it all”, Headie One boasts on Music x Road’s tropical-laced summer hit, “Both” (which also samples Ultra Natés 1999 hit, “Free”). And while he was alchemizing new dimensions to drill, he became the poster boy for a genre being blasted for its seething antagonism and uncomfortable proximity with a growing crime spike. It’s a long way from when Headie served bars with Tottenham’s very Own Star Gang and realized a viable possibility in a music career following a 2016 prison stint. After ditching his Headz alias, he dropped the rtap-baptized Sticks and Stones with RV the same year. Suddenly, Headie One was changing the image of drill. 

Then in January of this year, amid his highest highs, Headie One was sentenced to six months in prison for knife possession after he was stopped and searched in his car. It was his third bid in prison, and a thorn in the blossoming careers of one of the most exciting UK artists right now.

After some months of silence, the North London rapper released “Charades,” a startling evolution from his already brooding raps. Whereas Headie One’s style was fluid, it still stayed within the confines of UK drill. “Charades” sounded like NASA finally got a response from those gold-coated polygraphs they launched into space 50 years ago. 

After being freed in late March, Headie released his eighth mixtape, GANG, a collaboration with British producer and songwriter, Fred Again…; in which they jettison all boundaries of drill. Headie’s Midas touch isn’t concerned about what the genre can sound like when its boundaries are played with, but rather, explores the untapped angst and sadness of man. GANG contains Headie One’s best songwriting: it’s sad, raw, and universal, suffused with the quiet minimalism of Brian Eno, the murky poignancy of Burial and the glitched out pandemonium of Joy Orbison. There’s nothing quite like it so far. 

Before the 30-second mark on the tape, he confesses the dilemma looming over his head: “I still walk a thin line between music and road.” His thoughts are probed and examined in the claustrophobic space of a jail cell. Those musings are anchored by the unpredictable arrangements of Fredagain…, who executively produced the tape over a swift six sessions last summer. The visionary producer helped craft minimalist psychedelic soundscapes with Brian Eno and Karl Hyde and contributed in studio sessions along the likes of Charli XCX, Octavian and Stormzy.

By the distant, living heartbeat, we got an impending sense that we’re about to enter uncharted territory. And when the first chilling note is played, we know. “Told” is the dark cousin of Music x Road’s self-titled opener and whereas the North London trailblazer is blase and confident, this is painfully mournful. Piano notes fall and shatter in distortion and echo as Headie One repeats the dogma he learned throughout his life growing up on the infamous Farmwater Broad Estate — known for being the backdrop of two major riots that became the focal point of brewing distrust against the police and racial tensions. “Loyalty first, that’s the code you know.” They appear as life-saving commandments that helped him navigate grueling poverty, a hardened judicial system, enemies, and a sensationalist media.

Listening to GANG can feel like the tape is going to malfunction and shut down from its own crushing catharsis. In the self-titled track, the synths evoke a mist and Headie One is propped by techno-drenched drums, it builds up until the chorus where Headie One’s baritone is weighed down and twisted by vocal modulations. GANG lays itself bare and conveys its traumas into emotional wisdom 

The sense of brotherhood is crystallized further by its official music video. We witness the faces of Londoners fading in and out of the darkness, before the camera lifts up to an aerial viewpoint, revealing a cosmic and intricate portrait of Britain. He holds the people close to him right over airtight kicks and vocal modulations; as the world closes in on him, he lets out the last breath: “It’s my Pa’s birthday, I’mma gift him some land / Cah he used to wash my shirts, done that shit with his hands.” While the suffocating conversations on UK drill lean towards the moral panic of youth violence, Headie One is an oxygen bubble, emerging from the murky, oft-voiceless depths.

Exhibiting rare chemistry, Headie and Fred agonize in the heartbreak of feeling unloved and judged, as  fka twigs’ angelic soprano in “Judge Me’” floats in space with Headie One’s glitched-out pleas. Finally, they crash into a geyser of wrapped distortion. On the Jamie-xx assisted “Smoke,” they create a smoky dance-pop that builds off glowing snyths and throbbing bassline, with Headie One bellowing out his piercing anxieties. The heartfelt closer, “SOLDIERS,” offers a lifeboat in the brewing storm of emotion. Sampha’s fragile vocal rises above the serene and downtrodden production, like an archangel watching over Headie One, who effortlessly sings: “It takes, share my hands with you and let you help me.” The track serves as a beacon of hope in the tortured dystopia of GANG, guiding us through a Tottenham where the lizzie is covered in blood, the cognac tastes like the dirty water from prison taps and the designer is tailored into funeral suits or Her Majesty’s prison jumpsuits. 

If there is a centerpiece to the tape, it’s “Charades.” It opens with a voicemail from Headie One talking to Fred Again…, whose pianos creep over a recording of a “Headie! One!” chant. The drill legend’s refined baritone growls take center stage. Headie One calls bluffs on opps. There’s skengs, flickies, rambos and hoodied up black men creeping in dingers: an impressionistic reconstruction of the sights you’ll see growing up on the dog-eat-dog world of London. 

UK Drill artists have tried to balance their careers of breaking ceilings in the music industry and still giving in to their love of the roads. Some face darker endings: incarceration, death, even deportation. Others become musically stagnant, or simply stop making music and fade out of the framework. Headie One challenges the looming threat with menace and majesty. At the end of the second verse, Headie One’s flow turns buttery-smooth. The sober piano keys bleed into the low-end trumpet horns ans raspy Octavian backing ad-libs. 

The once-intense image is now flipped into a maximalist flex: he names off designer brands like a shopping list, causally brags about his rose gold diamonds that are VV’s (that’s Very, Very Slightly Included drip btw), the bad B’s flirting with him while the rambos adjacent on both sides, and refers to A Boogie wit a Hoodie masking his true actions. When the production rises, he proclaims the last line of the hook: “One day I’m in the hood tryna pattern up Shh / The next day I’m recording in France.” It’s one of the few brief glimpses in GANG where Headie One is truly triumphant: that burdensome line of “doing music” and “doing road” isn’t treated with trepidation, the binary is completely erased. At the end of the track, we can hear Fredagain… laugh with elation, as if they’re waiting on the drill scene to finally see the gates already being pushed open.

M1illionz – “Y Pree”

M1illionz raps like he’s telling you the maddest stories with the coldest remove. His ability to swerve off the pocket, squeeze in extra syllables and then land squarely on his feet is one of the reasons why he’s become one of the best up-and-coming rappers in the UK. See the moment just before 3:05, where he stops in the middle of his bar, then the beat switches and he continues his soft-spoken, cavalier flow without flinching. 

It’s why he rebuffs haters and feds in the hook: “I just seen that whip circle back twice / Is it funny youts or CID? / Why Pree? Why Pree?”. In their defence, how could they not? The music video is a movie (especially when we’re trapped in our mould-rotten, rodent-infested rentals indefinitely) seeing the rapper travel through the cities of heat-scorched Jamaica. He’s sipping on rum, billing joints, rapping while on a boat, showing off his grills and living his best life. You never know when M1illionz’s voice is going to simmer down to a complex one-liner or an oozing ad-lib, but the outcome is always satisfying. I could definitely listen to an album of this.

Scoobz – “Japanese”

To be honest, there’s nothing sicker than listening to rappers deliver out bars that double as sly mentions to Anime. The Birmingham-based drill artist is pretty good at doing this and in ‘Japanese’, the stand-out song from his debut EP, Meddling Kind, he portrays the lifestyle of a Driller while squeezing in Naruto, Dragonball Z and FullMetal Alchemist references.

KO & Joy Orbison – “Untitled”

The Drop wouldn’t be a UK drill column if I didn’t include this mind-bending collaboration between British electronic producer Joy Orbison and the Drilliam Shakespeare of UK Rap, KO. It’s untitled, unmixed and unmastered, but an interesting peek into revealing what the future of drill could possibly look like.

LD – “Intro”

In 2017, you could see that LD was on top of the UK drill scene – the viral “Let’s Lurk” was basically synonymous with the rise of UK drill and collected MOBO’s along the way with the Brixton Drill group 67. Now, he’s contemplating in a prison cell while newer rappers benefit from the foundation he helped establish. On December 6th 2019, it felt like a new phase of UK drill was unfolding, signified by 67’s ringleader LD’s series of tweets – tweeting RIP to the late Harlem Spartans rapper, Bis, who passed away early December and free-’em’-isms to Digga D, #OFB’s SJ, Lewisham’s Slim and his right-hand men, ASAP and R6. Before ending his diatribe, he goes out with a bang, in all caps: “AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST, FREE ME!” 

Along with ASAP, he was sentenced to four and a half years for allegedly running a drug-smuggling ring in the Home Counties. In the depths of YouTube comments, there’s a swaying insinuation that the Brixton-bred collective 67 were falling off. Well, this is a lie descended from the depths of hell, because musically, they’ve. been. delivering. consistently. “Intro” is a song you can add to that list. While UK drill is seemingly moving forward at a lighting-speed pace, LD finds solace in the old; you can sense the Chiraq-esque church bells thrashing in the intro, but there’s a vintage freshness that is seasoned by a pioneer’s experience in the field. The drop comes and LD is fierce but reproachful. It’s beguiling testimony against the fuckeries who are trying to make him six feet below or serve a life sentence.

As we wait for his upcoming tape, Who’s Watching, it’s proof of life that the silver-masked pioneer of Brixton is still in the conversation for as one of UK drill’s best rappers.

Stay Flee Get Lizzy featuring Youngs Telfon, Blanco, and RV – “Handsome G”

I seriously think we should consider making RV a Poet Laureate or include his bar “If the boyz in the hood, no homo, get their back blown like Ricky” in the Tate Modern.

Russ – “My Son #2-0” & Taze – “Playground 3”

Seeing UK drill’s Chuckle Brothers beef to heavily-publicized, slightly-fake Chip and Bugzy Malone theatrics feels surreal. We’re in lockdown and Russ is calling Taze his son because he had a verse on the “Keisha & Becky Remix” while Taze is mockingly gun-leaning and calling Russ a neek over Yamacia’s aggressive beats. To be honest, Russ getting into beef with someone every month is a certainty in life, like taxes, death, or a tone-deaf Guardian Journalist getting ratio’d on Twitter. So while the array of sends are enjoyable, I don’t have a rigid attachment to either side. But for the sake of an argument, #TeamTaze is the wave right now.

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