AJ Tracey has been active on the music scene since 2011, and it feels like we’ve been waiting for a minute for the West Londoner’s debut album. Tracey has earned his credibility through solid EPs such as Secure the Bag! and stand-out singles like “Buster Cannon,” not to mention a few MOBO nominations, high-profile fans like Drake, and a certified gold single. All of this, without an album release!
Now, Tracey’s self-titled full-length is finally here, and he’s sending a clear message on how he wants us to perceive his artistry. Speaking to Esquire last year, he was adamant that people do not call him a “grime artist.” On this record, he sets out to prove why, with his versatility being one of the most striking aspects of the album. Heavy experimentation can be a risk on a debut LP, but Tracey’s self-confidence allows him to carry this more often than not. If you were under any doubt about his belief in himself, you only have to look at the album’s artwork; AJ is pictured carrying a goat, metaphorically telling us he’s the G.O.A.T. among his peers, which is no insecure statement.
Tracey had been preparing us for something eclectic with his choice of singles. “Doing It,” released last November, gave us a familiar but fresh, local sound, while “Psych Out!” is full of US hip-hop vibes, even down to the music video set in a strip club. No where is his willingness to play with different sounds more evident than on standout track “Country Star.” Signaling a change in direction on the record, you’re initially taken aback by the sounds of a moody, acoustic guitar. Yet it’s not the country music twangs or the catchy chorus sung by Tracey that is most impressive; it’s his ability to adapt his rapping effortlessly to this sound. AJ also changes gears on “Ladbroke Grove,” a punchy club cut nostalgic of UK garage. Tracey owns the track with ease, creating something that could have been plucked from the early 2000s. Sampling Jorja Smith’s “Wandering Romance,” this track binds together perfectly. AJ proves whatever beat he’s given, he’ll deliver the bars.
While this album is rich in its variety of sounds, AJ Tracey doesn’t stray too far from the norm in terms of what he raps about. He gives us plenty of commentary on his newfound fame, which at times is a little unadventurous. “Plan B,” the first song on the album, initially creates intrigue as it suggests his new life doesn’t quite make sense to him. “Running through these bottles, running through these bottles/ I can’t see what’s real I’m living in a bubble.” Similarly, on “Jackpot,” AJ brags about the finer things which are now accessible to him, including stays in Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, OFF-WHITE clothing, and dining at posh London eatery Bob Bob Ricard. Unsurprisingly, AJ also boasts about his self-confessed “playboy” status even getting a “Wine off of someone’s Aunty” on “Wifey Riddim 3,” produced by UK powerhouse producer Steel Banglez.
AJ’s decision to keep the guest features limited is a deliberate attempt to rightly keep the focus on him. Apart from Jay Critch, the only other features are Giggs on “Nothing But Net” and rising British rapper Not3s on “Butterflies.” Tracey certainly holds his own here, while Giggs makes a short, but fitting appearance that resembles of a passing of the torch from one of the genre’s elder statesmen. The album comes full circle as this song leads us into “Horror Flick” and “Triple S.” At this point, we feel better acquainted with Tracey’s range and accept the comfort of what already sound like quintessential tracks.
This body of work proves that AJ Tracey has star quality in the making. For the most part, he has the musical agility to flex his muscles on other sounds. But at other points, being driven in multiple directions leaves the album lacking cohesion. AJ’s strength lies in the delivery of his rapping, whatever the flavor of the track. This album represents his growth, while simultaneously building a secure foundation for him to veer off into different directions. We never want to see artists pigeonholed and stifled, and AJ’s raw talent means we’re willing to go on this creative journey with him.
- Words: Nikita Rathod