Like most cultural exports of London, the hip hop scene of the capital city can be divided into the usual regions. From the north of the city came Skepta and Jme, from the south came Stormzy and Dave, and from the east came Dizzee Rascal and Kano. West London, by comparison, seemed for a long time as if it had yet to claim its number one star. That was until a few years ago, when the relentlessly confident AJ Tracey stepped forward. The rapper may have been born in Brixton and grew up with North London’s Tottenham Hotspur as his football club of choice, but his upbringing has been firmly rooted in the west, and he sings the praises of his hometown of Ladbroke Grove as if it were an urban Mecca.
AJ Tracey’s self-titled album follows a series of highly impressive EPs and singles that earned him the respect of his elder British peers, as well as of the world’s “biggest rapper ever” Drake. Yet while his earlier efforts were rooted much more firmly in a grittier, quicker paced grime sound, his first full length project has opted for musical diversity over the tried and tested classics. Some UK scene purists may deride AJ for his attempts to branch out, but one can hardly say he has betrayed his roots on this record. Intro track Plan B may not be a return to hard grime form, but it can hardly be called a pop song, and its presence as a “lyrical manifesto” of sorts in which AJ defiantly derides his critics and rivals sets the album off on a decisively sinister note. Grime may not be this record’s centre point, but it is no doubt a constant influence. Doing It is a contender for perhaps the best “pure grime” song AJ Tracey has ever put out, and Nothing But Net proves he deserves every commendation for his ability to turn “road rap” king Giggs into a much pacier spitter via a devilish and metallic instrumental.
But, in all honesty, British hip hop has for too long been held back by the whims of older purists. There is a certain breed of UK rap fan that will never be satisfied with an artist veering off the well-trodden path of raw lyricism into pop or US-influenced territory, no matter how tastefully the move is pulled off. To a certain extent this is a by-product of the British scene’s relative infancy. Whereas US hip hop “diversified” itself in the noughties with the emerge of Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Drake, UK hip hop has yet to fully realise its wider ambition. It may be too grandiose a statement to compare artists like AJ Tracey to those aforementioned American greats, but this album – as an effort to push the boundaries of British rap further than ever before – seems in some ways just as necessary in a national context as those first “backpacker” records of US hip hop were. Songs like Country Star and Psych Out, perplexingly described by AJ in album promo as his efforts to “make country music”, have been scoffed at by some for their sheer unashamed melody, and yet the success of these songs on streaming platforms and the charts has proved their viability. “Grime” as an insular concept may be dying some form of a death, but AJ Tracey is one of a number of flagship young artists that are paving the way for hip hop and R&B to take over the UK in a similar fashion to how it has taken over the US.
This album is not, in any sense, aping the US style however. In fact, quite the opposite. One could even go as far as to call it the most quintessentially English rap album. AJ Tracey weaves in tongue twisting references to celebrities few Americans have ever heard of, rapping on Double C’s “posh tings said my work rate’s Kante, that’s why she always wanna bend and go low (N’Golo)”, and name checking Newcastle United’s Christian Atsu on Triple S. The message is clear: comparisons to basketball and NFL legends are out, and puns on the names of world cup winners and Premier League players are in.
Stylistically, too, we find brands of music on this record that – while certainly not traditionally British – can’t be said to be Americanised in any sense either. AJ’s collaboration with close friend Not3s, Butterflies, is essentially a pop-dancehall song, yet just as his mentor Drake warped Caribbean sounds to fit a Toronto-based sound, AJ’s take on the genre flips it into something distinctly London-ish in nature.
If there were to be any obstacle to this album making AJ Tracey into a true worldwide star, it, unfortunately, would be the British media themselves. When the young Londoner walked into a BBC studio in the week of release to promote the project on the Victoria Derbyshire show, he was met with a barrage of questions criticised on social media as “laden with racist stereotypes”. The interviewer interrogated him on the use of strippers in the video for Psych Out, and insinuated that footage of “guys hanging out” in his music videos was some kind of hint at support for gang membership. It is hard to think of a line of questioning that could more disappointingly and hilariously illustrate the disconnect between the older generation and the UK hip hop scene. It demonstrates, once again, that as AJ Tracey’s career launches into its next stage, he will sadly be forced to confront the same tired stereotypes and clichés that his American counterparts – for the most part – overcame some time ago.
For this album and his career as a whole, however, AJ Tracey has no reason to be anything but optimistic. With a stellar production team behind him, he has lyrically cruised along some mesmerising beats (Wifey Riddim 3, Rina), club-sized anthems (Butterflies), and all while establishing brotherly connections across the Atlantic (Necklace). He is a living testament to the fact that the future of British hip hop is as bright as it’s ever been. The big question, of course, is whether or not an artist like this with an accent that is unmistakeably English could ever crack the American market (and whether cracking the US even matters at all). My intuition is that so long as artists like AJ keep pushing forward the frontiers of our native rap scene and keep inspiring young kids across our own country to make music, then we already have plenty to be proud of regardless of whether Los Angeles or New York are paying attention.