Whatever you want to call it—‘road rap’, ‘UK rap’, ‘UK drill’—British hip-hop’s dark side is currently having its moment in the light and it’s been a long time coming. Since the late nineties and early noughties, the sound’s forebears, JaJa Soze (and PDC) and Giggs (with SN1), have had to fight long and hard for their voices to be heard on top-tier platforms, respected and taken seriously, whilst also being a mouthpiece for millions across the country. The work of these legends has not gone unnoticed as the music industry, and fans alike, have seen a fraternity of drill rappers—acts such as 67, Loski, and Headie One—rise up in their respective parts of the city, adding a touch more menace to proceedings with their brazen tales of life on London’s streets.

Headie One, especially, has had a groundbreaking year. The Tottenham-hailing ad-lib king has pierced through the ears of old-time critics and backpack-rap heads, offering up a more lyrically dense take on the Chicago-inspired UK drill movement. Getting his first taste of the mic back in secondary school, trading bars with friends in the local studio—at first, it was all a bit of fun, and it wasn’t until after Headie went to prison for the third time that he looked at music seriously in the eye. But it was to be a collaboration with the rapper RV that would blast his career into rap’s top tier: “Know Better”, released in January 2018 as a real-life warning to Headie’s adversaries, flipped the game on its head like a 50p coin with seminal results.

It was sonically a refreshing and forward-thinking shot; the shh! ad-lib; the icy, ghoulish riddim; the punchy flow—it was a step up from what we’d heard previously from the UK drill scene. The rapper quickly followed the viral banger with a re-release of his mixtape, The One, literally a few days later. Across fifteen tracks, we got to witness an artist come into their own right in front of our eyes as he dropped one of the best tapes of 2018. With follow-up The One Two now out and doing its rounds, Complex caught up with Headie to discuss his life-changing year and career up to this point. (As seen in his memeified NFTR interview, it was clear from the start that he’s a man of few words, which is fine: Headie’s music does all the talking for him.)