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AJ Tracey - AJ Tracey Music Album Reviews

The debut from grime’s rising star is a mixed bag but still peppered with hits, inviting elements of dancehall, pop, trap, and garage to the same house party.

Let us remember London in the early 2000s, a special place and time, when the city’s pirate radio stations blasted out street tunes that seemed to form a forcefield around the tower blocks, protecting them from the horrors of Loaded magazine, post-Britpop indie, and New Labour. Out of the underground swaggered Craig David and Ms. Dynamite, genuine 21st-century British superstars whose debut albums shunned the UK garage sounds they’d built their reputation on and looked instead to contemporary American soul. Cut to a decade-and-a-half later and Skepta, a right honorable lord of grime, mixed local street sounds with transatlantic influences on his 2016 album Konichiwa. Like Ms. Dynamite, he was rewarded with a Mercury Music Prize. This is the way things have been done.

So what now of AJ Tracey? Straight out of West London, the 24-year-old has spent the last few years assembling a large youth following, championing Jeremy Corbyn in a volatile political era, and asserting his position as the next big-ticket British rapper with punchy quotables over battering grime beats. As is tradition, Tracey’s self-titled debut album is a veritable smorgasbord of local and international sounds, inviting elements of dancehall, pop, trap, and garage to the same house party. It’s also one of the most strangely sequenced albums of recent memory. Not only does Tracey opt to bookend it with relatively low-key tracks—“Plan B” features a mild synth flutter and muted flows, while “Wifey Riddim 3” is a harmless summer holiday pop song about girls—he takes the odd decision to line-up all the bangers next to each other over the record’s second half.

This, unsurprisingly, is AJ Tracey’s best section. A song called “Horror Flick” is always going to be easy pickings for a rapper with a flow that could tear down a tenement block. In this movie, Tracey is no transparent apparition, spitting instead with monstrous presence. His themes through this portion of the album rarely expand beyond cash, success, and throwing threats at unspecified enemies. Still, hearing him in full force over the murky keys and rat-tat-tat hi-hats of “Doing It,” and the steady pummeling drum machines of the Giggs-assisted “Nothing But Net” is enough to make you wish he had just cut 10 grime hits and called it a day.

It’s through the opening half that things are much stickier. There are highlights: “Necklace” sees Tracey team up with rising New York rapper Jay Critch over a beat that works acoustic guitar plucks into a melodic Auto-Tune-drenched number. On the other end of the spectrum, the generic dancehall of “Butterflies” and Young Thug pastiche “Psych Out!” minimize Tracey’s strengths by calibrating his voice into a half-tuneful croon. “Jackpot” places him in a Las Vegas casino but there’s little in the way of compelling detail from the man who once gloriously touted his touring scheduled with brags about playing Belgium twice and flying to Bordeaux “for a slice of the cheese.”

The best surprise is “Ladbroke Groove,” a tribute to Tracey’s home street that simultaneously pays homage to the classic garage sounds he grew up on. Strutting into two-step heaven, Tracey ensures the album links the UK urban music’s past and present. Which of the mixed bag of styles deployed on AJ Tracey will be further investigated in the future remains a mystery. What is clear is that he has talent and star power for days—talents that could have been better showcased here.


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