Irish drill isn’t made for mainstream approval. It’s a tough, grimy and unyielding strand of rap music. Irish drill borrows heavily from its UK equivalent, which has been furiously linked by police, politicians and media commentators to street violence. You know, the same kind of critics who used to come out for comic books, violent video games and Marilyn Manson.

A92 are for combating the status quo. While drill is most typically packaged in the form of single tracks and YouTube videos, last month the Drogheda collective released their debut mixtape 92 Degrees.

Because I’m twice the age of most drill rappers, I like a certain amount of tradition, such as the long-form music project, and 92 Degrees is, for me, the most complete drill release this island has produced yet. If this isn’t the best Irish album in a while, it’s for sure the hardest.

The cover of 92 Degrees – named after the area code in which they roam – sees A92 pay homage to NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, each member staring down with clear blue skies above their heads, as if taken from the perspective of a body they just laid out on the street. Pitching themselves as the continuity to the most apotheosised rap group to ever come out of Los Angeles is a bold move, but one sure to grab the attention of both traditional and casual rap fans.

Then there is Offica, the “Officer in Charge”, defacto group leader. Offica has previously teamed up with KSI on “Naruto Drillings Remix”. If you don’t know who KSI is, your kids probably do – the Englishman is less regarded as a music artist and better known as one of the most influential YouTubers on Earth. The clips sit at over 3.5 million views at the time of writing. This has been the reach of Irish drill.

Offica has tended to obscure his face with a strange implement that at different times looks like a shell, a giant lollipop, and a mono-colour version of the Apple Mac’s spinning wheel. In November, he dropped the solo track “Face Reveal” with a video that delivered on the title. Like rapper Reggie before him, Offica is evolving from the drill tradition of obscuring one’s facial features into an artist more marketable.

“I put my city on the map,” he raps on “Face Reveal”, Drogheda City looming in the backdrop.

All this is to say, the group is dedicated to breaking free of the online portals that have become the traditional home of drill music and into more traditional realms. And maybe it’s working – A92 now claim to be the first Irish drill collective to be played by mainstream radio.

Interestingly, Offica only appears on the two cuts that bookend 92 Degrees. Rather than jumping on a side project record with his crew as a show of strength, as has long been hip-hop custom, Offica treats all his previous success as a pathfinder mission. By leaving ample space on 92 Degrees for the rest of his crew, he’s gesturing to them to follow.

It’s typical with large rap collectives to have a few passengers in their ranks – friends who are allowed to jump on stage, carry the weed and ride the coattails of the talent. Even iconic groups like Odd Future had some weak emcees on the roster. There’s no bad rappers in the deck here though. Seven A92 emcees spit on opening track “A9 Link Up”. There’s no chorus necessary, each rapper simply seizes the mic like a precious amulet, their murky rhymes sounding fluid and gripping.

Offica takes the final leg, his trademark use of Yoruba slang punctuating his lyrics: “’Cause I’m in charge of it, General Sergeant Officer/And they keep calling me police but omo emi o se olopa.”

The bars are short and punchy, with writing that will never be described by rap traditionalists as “lyrical”. A92 namedrop their favoured social media platforms, rap about sex, and reference footballers because they’re young and these things matter. Rhymes are layered with pop culture references: “Like Pikachu, yeah, I choose you,” raps A9Dbo Fundz on “Duck Duck Goose” with enjoyable levity. And though there’s some gangster posturing, the album rarely gets involved in the extremely bleak violence that punctuates some of the most uncompromising UK drill.

Speaking of A9Dbo Fundz (or just Dbo), his voice is one of the most singular instruments on 92 Degrees. An impossibly deep baritone surely forged in a hidden furnace close to the Earth’s core, this is the voice of a man who can command bears to do his bidding. “Real Life” features a classical music sample reminiscent of composer Clint Mansell’s iconic Requiem for a Dream soundtrack. Matched with Fundz’ voice, it’s double doom and it’s beautiful.

If you’re looking for tracks to help aid your entrance into A92’s world, “My Wrist on Bop’’ is the best single. Seizing on that lovely bit of rap vernacular, Dbo’s fluid chorus is addictive as he brags about the timepiece on his wrist. A92Nikz and A9Ksav take the verses, their flows as murky as the midnight mist. The song winds to Nikz and Ksav rapping back and forth in conversation with all the chemistry of a classic double act – chemistry shared by the entire collective.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the tape lacks a few alternative angles. Even with the shuffling pack of rappers, 14 songs and 49 minutes could have been tightened up. So while 92 Degrees features no evidence of a radical drill reinvention, it does offer the perfect encapsulation of its chiselled features and provide a jump-off point to whatever strange new realms A92 and others want to leap to next.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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