In a week when 21 Savage’s UK heritage was revealed, Anglo-American hip hop relations have naturally been put under the microscope. The resulting onslaught of memes has highlighted the fact that the UK scene - which used to define itself, almost dogmatically, in opposition to its counterpart in the states - now resembles its American cousin more closely than ever.
This is not necessarily to the UK’s detriment, as is generally perceived; the relationship is often reciprocal. Recent years have seen Method Man adopt the Ocean Wisdom flow on Wiz’s track ‘Ting Dun’, A$AP Rocky and Skepta’s exhibit their symbiosis on ‘Praise Da Lord’ and DJ Premier lend his fabled production talents to The Four Owls on ‘Think Twice’ – all are prototypes for mutually beneficial transatlantic collaboration.
So often however, UK artists seem to parrot American motifs in a lazy, albeit successful, attempt to emulate their commercial success. To them, it probably feels a bit like being stuck behind a slow-moving tractor: British MC’s are unable to move past the chart-dominating juggernaut that is US hip hop so are forced to meet its speed. On his eponymous debut however, AJ Tracey shows this adoption of a similar stylistic approach doesn’t necessitate the same cringe-fuelled reaction induced by many of his contemporaries, even if lyrically he sometimes runs the risk of being labelled one-dimensional.
For the most part, his self-titled debut album sounds as though Tracey has taken a chunk of Metro Boomin production, covered it in glue and punted it through suburban London; references to N’golo Kante, Nigel Farage and the Shard are met with rolling hi-hats, melodic bass and Migos-style adlibs. The result is the core of an album which is heavily Americanised but ostensibly British enough that people will still call it ‘grime’, even if in reality it’s more Waka Flocka than Wiley.
Interspersed between these polished and relatively formulaic sections however are genre switch-ups which breathe new life into the album, accommodating AJ’s more melodic vocal performances on the bluesy ‘Country Star’ and dancehall inspired ‘Butterflies’. This apparent sensitivity is tonal in nature only, though. Bragadaccio and hedonism are ever-presents throughout the album’s 15 tracks, extending to the cover art itself which shows Tracey with a baby goat in his lap, an expression somewhere between disinterest and imperiousness written across his face – the symbolism is blatant.
AJ Tracey is revelling in his role as the newest commercially viable face of UK hip hop
There are moments when this unrelenting pomposity can be grating, but for the most part AJ gets away with it, his unapologetic demeanour is curiously endearing. The ironically titled ‘Wifey Riddim 3’ is the best example of this, the West London MC playfully chanting “my girl you can’t be, but I wanna see you up and out of them jeans, yeah” over compressed snares and infectious tropical xylophone keys.
‘Ladbrook Grove’, an homage to the area where Tracey spent his youth, is bonified UK garage. Produced by Conducta and featuring a pitched up Jorja Smith sample, the track provides a rare opportunity for gunfingers in an album which is driven predominantly by its mellower cuts.
It’s clear AJ Tracey is revelling in his role as the newest commercially viable face of UK hip hop. This sprawling marriage of drill, dancehall and trap can sometimes feel contrived, but the ambitiousness should be lauded. Overall, AJ is a relatively convincing evangelist for hip hop transatlanticism.