The individual paths that led to the coming together of rising London rapper Headie One and in-demand producer Fred again.. is a story in itself. It’s a story that spans council estates, studios, university campuses, prison cells and award ceremonies while flowing through drill, art-rock, experimental electronic, ambient and pop.
Thankfully, it’s also this story that Headie One and Fred again.. try to stitch together during this mixtape’s brief 22 minutes. The language they use to tell this increasingly convergent story is a confluence of their two native tongues: Fred again..’s explorative and expansive aural tapestries and Headie One’s ever-maturing voice. By the end of its eight tracks, it feels like the two languages have begun to mutate into its own idiosyncratic sound
Opener “Told” elicits an immediate vulnerability with Headie stating the importance of belonging and loyalty, key motifs throughout the whole mix-tape, while his pitch is endlessly experimented with by Fred, who uses it to build and question Headie’s repeated maxim: “Family first, that’s the code you know”. The line itself never changes during the song but the reverberating emotion does; shifting with the twist of a dial from conviction to doubt.
Headie’s vocals continue to impress during ‘GANG’, where they effortlessly ride the uneven nostalgic waves crafted by Fred. The soundscape faithfully translates Headie’s conflicted yearning for the outside world while stuck in prison; the quiddity lost somewhere between optimism and determinism as Headie covets the freedom that ultimately will land him back in this isolation.
Prior to lead single ‘Charades’, the mixtape interjects a snippet of a real-life phone call between the two artists where Headie apologises for his silence and speaks cryptically of having to “deal with a few situations”. It’s a fleeting reminder of the record’s authenticity, spontaneity and inherent fragility – it being no coincidence that this mixtape dropped the same day Headie One was released from prison for the third time.
GANG reaches its creative apotheosis in ‘Smoke’, a labyrinth of pulsating beats, shifting tempos and spiralling flows that is anchored by a Jamie xx-assisted drum track that bubbles beneath Headie One’s wayward verses which enrage, touch and incite. The weight of the production and Headie’s indignation eventually becomes too dense and the beat collapses in on itself, paralysing the track in a haunting pathos with Headie acknowledging his sense of exile: “Hugs? No hugs, I had to hug my thoughts. Nobody come to court”.
Despite the unrelenting highs, the collaboration is not entirely fluent yet. The fragmentary and experimental tracks ‘Judge Me’ and ‘Tyron (interlude)’ are under-developed – feeling loose and misplaced, whereas “Charades” steers too close to re-treading Headie’s 2019 mixtape Music x Road.
Last song ‘SOLDIERS’, featuring Sampha, concludes the release with a soaring grandiosity that unifies the sonic liberation that Headie and Fred have achieved in just over twenty minutes. Headie One is fully legitimising himself as an artist of the highest order, and Fred again.. is solidifying himself as the producer of the moment and, quite possibly, the future.
It’d be a stretch to say that this mixtape is the future of a genre, but it may serve as a blueprint.