AJ Tracey AJ Tracey

[Self-Released; 2019]

Styles: grime, trap, pop
Others: Skepta, Gunna, Avelino, Drake

Confidence soaks through AJ Tracey’s music like sweat through a white t-shirt. It’s the sound of a young Londoner on his grind, running on pure gas, dedicated to not only proving his greatness, but also pounding it into your chest until he’s sure you won’t forget it. To round up nearly five years spent dropping firebombs on the UK’s grime scene and driving the evolution of black British music toward a more popular and chart-friendly sound (partly by doing that controversial thing known as “singing”), AJ Tracey is the rapper’s most comprehensive project to date and his first definitive statement to the world beyond European ears. And given the eponymous title, the lack of major label involvement, and the symbolic baby goat on the cover of the album, it’s clear off the bat that his statement is primarily one of self-affirmation and authenticity. Yeah, some may call it egotism, and the lyrical content of these 15 tracks wouldn’t do much to dispute that. But with artists like AJ Tracey beginning to take on a global audience and the sounds of London’s black diaspora gaining more influence than ever before, such overt displays of confidence reflect more than just the strong personalities behind them, but also the increasing strength of UK rap as a whole.

On a more individual level, we could view this album as AJ Tracey cocking his leg and marking his territory in UK rap. Voiced strictly in the first person with the camera zoomed right in on himself, the subtext running throughout is almost always: “this is who I am, this is where I’m from, this is what I’m all about, and this is what I’ll do to your girl.” Each track is served with a fiery cocktail of bravado and aggression; boasts of seducing popstars and buying a flat in Chelsea appear alongside creative threats to “put a paigon in a crypt, no Nipsey/ Spin a dumb yute like whiskey” on the explosive lead single “Doing It.” And there’s no shortage of materialistic namechecking either, with certain verses reeling off like a receipt from Selfridges on pay day. But without a doubt, the main event is AJ’s lyricism: the way he delivers each flex is like a big flex in itself. His most candid of thoughts seem to effortlessly weave themselves together in a never-ending torrent of wordplay (“I eat goat nuff times I’m a cannibal”), metaphor (“my dick’s Fashion Nova the way girls promo”), and reference (“used to touch hard yellow bricks like Toto”). The first verse on “Nothing But Net” sees AJ combining this lyrical flare with an almost gymnastic sense of cadence, taking us on a journey from “Pave Lows” to “laying roses” via three-stack creps and Range Rovers, all while switching up and intensifying his flow. From start to finish, he barely takes a breath, drawing a contrast between his own rhythmic approach and that of Giggs, who expertly huffs and puffs his way through the second verse like the big bad wolf did with all them pigs’ houses, leaving plenty of space for classic ad-libs.

I get the impression that impeccable delivery comes naturally to AJ Tracey, like, my man could just ask someone for directions and it would sound half-decent with some 808s slapped on top. It’s precisely because of this impeccable delivery that I’m happy to endure over 50 minutes of being reminded that I’m poor as fuck, that NIKE doesn’t send me free shoes, and that I drive an unserviced Mégane. Of course, this level of fluency and control owes itself in part to AJ Tracey’s beginnings as a pure-blooded grime MC, formative years spent refining his craft via pirate radio slots and low-key SoundCloud releases. “Horror Flick,” with its staggered square wave instrumental reminiscent of Motorola-era eskibeat, launches AJ back into the relentless 8-bar fuckery that made his name — snappy staccato flow, rowdy vibes, belligerent lyrics, and blunt vowels that punch you in the nose at the end of each bar. While, naturally, the track indulges our nostalgia for a certain sound and a certain era (as does the album’s UK garage tune “Ladbroke Grove,” albeit with much cheesier results), it also reminds us that whatever was fueling the chaotic energy of those days never really went away.

Nonetheless, many tracks on AJ Tracey represent a sharp turn away from the climate of stony-faced realism and road-weary catharsis that has come to define British rap. Instead, the lyrics tend toward escapism and excess, while the beats come smooth and expensive like ingots of platinum. The dominant vibe is not so much rowdy as actually kinda comfortable: all mink coats and penthouse suites and satisfied accountants. This is partly because AJ has absorbed a degree of American extravagance since he gave up the street corner for Soho House. For instance, “Prada Me” has him spewing triplet flows and autotuned melodies all over a trap beat like he’s just necked a pint of Codeine. And the opening track “Plan B” moves with a kind of hazy swagger that recalls the mellow side of New York rap: tempo slowed right down, bass nice and clean, AJ’s delivery at its most subdued. This polite cultural exchange with the States continues amidst an endless stream of West London slang and hyperlocal references, its most explicit manifestation being the presence of Brooklyn MC Jay Critch on the track “Necklace” — which, btw, perfectly sums up the fusion of British and American styles with the line: “I drop the top, her knickers are comin’ right off.

Although bound to upset plenty of grime purists with its more transatlantic urges, all things considered this project is not so much about AJ Tracey “outgrowing his roots” as it is his ability to make honest-to-god bangers in more ways than one. Honestly — and I hate to be so reductive here, but — a banger is a banger regardless of provenance or cultural context. Just listen to “Psych Out!,” a highly polished bit of trap music of the sing-rap variety: it’s all very trendy, very melodic, very Atlantan, and while definitely not home turf for AJ, it’s still one of the hardest tracks on the album. I often hear it blasting full-volume out of passing cars, bass so loud I can feel it through the curb, and it makes me feel like flipping tables and dashing people through windows. Ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to: not necessarily violence, but feeling. That feeling when a tune hits you right in the chest, connects to you in a visceral way, spreading bubbles across your skin like spilt champagne. That feeling, so brilliantly conveyed by AJ Tracey on this album, of no longer just surviving but actually living. What better way for a kid from Ladbroke Grove to make the whole world pay attention?

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