Review: ‘AJ Tracey’

AJ Tracey’s self-titled debut album drowns in drab American influences.

For the past couple years, British MC AJ Tracey has built a portfolio of energetic, grime EPs. From the debut EP The Front up to the multi-genre Secure the Bag!, Tracey has maintained a steady grip in the UK scene through witty cultural references and confident one-liners. A top twenty single with “Butterflies” served as a perfect precursor for Tracey’s eponymous album, who spoke about evolving as an artist by creating different styles of music. A debut album serves as Tracey’s true introduction to the world, so he must ensure the project captures the best of his abilities as both a creative artist and an MC.

To its detriment, AJ Tracey opts to feast on the skeleton of contemporary American trap, etching out the identity of AJ as a distinctive grime star.

From flows and production to ad-libs and lyrics, the self-titled album is carried by constant Americanisms executed in rudimentary fashion. A mellow opener raises an eyebrow (“Plan B”), though jumps straight into references to bust-downs, Off-White and Migos-esque flows (“Jackpot”). AJ Tracey suffers immediately from this trait; content that has been heard and done before and far detached from what British audiences expect.

Tracey’s knack for memorable hooks (“Buster Cannon”, “Leave Me Alone”) are unusually absent throughout the 15 tracks. Designer references are thrown out on a whim, often serving as the crux for the album’s string of weak hooks. “Double C’s” and “Prada Me” are the most overt examples, stressing awkward ad-libs (“Wrist!”, “kicks!”) while lacking melody and memorability. Throughout the constant attempts at borrowing formulas, Tracey never finds his comfort zone. “Necklace” with Jay Critch and “Prada Me” are underwhelming tracks that would succeed if performed by Brit-trap duo D-Block Europe. Tracey is a stranger to the necessary flow and delivery, unable to naturally create a genuine spirit.

The strength in AJ Tracey’s music came from his modernised take on grime. Refreshing energy was in EPs such as Lil Tracey and Alex Moran, instantly building a signature, recognisable style that could be taken to the next level. With AJ Tracey, the mellow production never allows songs to explode, nor do the beats compliment Tracey’s inherently grime flows. The guitar strums found on “Country Star” are a testament to American rapper Gunna’s signature style, an artist whose slurred, laidback flow compliments the acoustic architecture. However, Tracey’s rapid grime flow is divorced from the mellow production, a total mismatch in styles overseen by Tracey and his team.

AJ Tracey is salvaged by the singles, namely lead single “Butterflies”. The summery hit provides the album’s sole infectious melody, benefitting from Tracey’s acceptable singing unlike accompanying tracks. “Doing It” is testament to the true AJ Tracey model, a fast-paced modern grime cut that brings the final leg of the album to life. Aside from the penultimate track, “Doing It” is the album’s only grime song, and unsurprisingly one of its best. Tracey is able to comfortably fit in his signature pocket with his flow matching the production, a strength that is massively overlooked across the rest of the album.

A pitstop in the US sightseeing is “Ladbroke Grove”, a throwback two-step garage cut that accurately channels Tracey’s inner Master of Ceremonies. Aside from the misplaced Jorja Smith sample, “Ladbroke Grove” feels inherently British, subsequently one of the only songs on the album that possesses a genuine identity.

Tracey has never been the strongest of lyricists, however the quality of wordplay and quotables take a considerable nosedive from previous outings. Lines such as “That boy’s my son, that means I am his dad” and “I got these boogers in my watch, they’re not a bogey” generate a grimace and a sense of shock that such bars slipped through the stages of recording, mixing and mastering. It is another demonstration of the head-scratching endeavour to dumb down subject matter to designer references and weak similes.

AJ Tracey attempt to collide two worlds comes to an awkward standstill. But the album’s borrowed flows and bland production raises the important discussion of UK integrity; developing sounds that will influence the American scene rather than upholding the overseas trends as the superior division of hip hop. Without this integrity, AJ Tracey cannot succeed in its endeavour to fit squares into circles.

Rating: 5 / 10

Favourite tracks: “Doing It”, “Butterflies”, “Psych Out!”, “Triple S”

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