It’s not difficult to see why West London is known as the plusher side of the English capital city. Through tinted windows, I can see the huge, eggshell mansions of Holland Park lit up under a freakishly early spring sun. It’s the early afternoon and I’m sat in the back of a spacious car opposite AJ Tracey—or Ché Grant, named after revolutionary leader Che Guevara—and next to his older brother, Danny. A towering bodyguard sits in the front with AJ’s driver, who is wearing sunglasses and a Moncler bomber jacket, which the MC was quick to nod his head towards in approval when we first approached the vehicle in the underground car park of his apartment complex moments ago.
AJ points out that Ed Sheeran and the Beckhams live around here. “When you grow up in west [London], there are estate blocks next to £20 million houses, so you see what you can’t have every day,” he explains, detailing the same sort of geographical inequality that has given rise to British rap’s latest star Fredo, and UK drill outfit, 1011. “It either makes you really salty, walking around with a chip on your shoulder, or it motivates you, and makes you a zealous person who wants to go get it. At school, when everyone would sell sweets and chocolate, I’d always take it that step further. I’d hustle as hard as I could to get the new Air Forces, to go and chill with the posh kids and the white girls who were around my area. I didn’t want to just be the broke little n**** kid that couldn’t fit in. You get me?”
When you grow up in west [London], there are estate blocks next to £20 million houses, so you see what you can’t have every day.
The chorus of “Necklace,” featuring Jay Critch—“he’s tall and half-Trinidadian, too, so he’s basically my New York counterpart” AJ says, chuckling—oozes from the car’s sound system. It’s one of several impressively melodic songs on AJ Tracey’s self-titled debut album, which was released independently on February 8 and ended up at No. 3 on the UK albums chart. AJ hums along to his song, before looking down at his phone screen, raising his eyebrows, and reading out a sizable quote he’s just been sent through for the installment of a security system at his mum’s house. Then he laughs, shows his brother a DM he’s received from a girl on Instagram, before changing the track to A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Nav’s “Pull Up,” reloading it twice in appreciation of Boogie’s verse.
Over the next twenty minutes, AJ condemns R. Kelly and articulates a craving for Kanye West to return to the form that gave us 2008’s pioneering album 808s & Heartbreak. He expresses excitement for his upcoming world tour, describing how performing in America is “like starting all over again in the UK, because you have to win over your audience.” My impression is that when AJ is in full flow like this—we’re en route to an album signing at a record store in Ladbroke Grove, a stone’s throw from where he grew up, the son of two musicians turned youth-workers—there’s no need to ask too many questions. His thoughts and observations about art, politics, and life keep coming at a punchy, effortlessly rhythmic pace. It’s at once intense, but easy to listen to, much like the style of rapping that elevated him to where he is today.
An hour earlier, I’m sitting on AJ’s sofa waiting for him to finish showering. While being shown to my seat by his tour manager, Abs, I pass through a dimly lit landing piled high with Nike sneaker boxes. Snacks rest against a dark blue Ciroc Magnum on the kitchen counter, and three Supreme skateboards are lined up next to a wide screen television that AJ uses for gaming. Above it, a shelf full of trophies peers over the room, including one crowning him Best MC of 2017 at DJ Mag’s Best of British awards. The GRM Daily Track Of The Year 2018 trophy was awarded for AJ’s first mainstream breakout hit, the dancehall-tinged “Butterflies,” a collaboration with close friend Not3s. It has been watched over 24 million times on YouTube, charted in the Top 20 of the UK charts, and features on his new album alongside singles “Psych Out!” and “Doing It.”
“My mindset hasn’t changed at all, even if my circumstances have changed. I’ve learned a lot since then,” AJ replies when I ask what’s changed since we first met three years ago. Back then, in the summer of 2016, a brief window of opportunity in London’s evolving music scene had opened, and the young MC took advantage, building upon his existing reputation as a playful but canny pirate radio set specialist. In a matter of months, he became a rising star in grime’s resurgent wave via the release of anthem “Thiago Silva” with South London rap talent Dave.
“I’ve matured a lot, but my mind state and my plan is exactly the same,” he continues. “It’s just easier for me to carry out now. I have more of a platform. Before, when I made a loss it was a small loss, or if it was a win it was a big win. But now the losses and wins are massive. So I’ve just got to be a bit more careful. I’m still as hungry as ever though.”
Since then, AJ has released a slew of acclaimed EP’s like 2016’s Lil Tracey and 2017’s Secure The Bag! (the latter came out mere months after nearby Grenfell Tower burned to the ground, killing friends of his and leading him to comment on the government’s mishandling of the tragedy). A loyal, increasingly international fan base has grown alongside his musical versatility.
AJ has subsequently become one of London’s most respected MCs, and a mainstay voice in club and radio playlists, thus managing—not unlike Skepta, who might be considered as the master architect of the post-grime career blueprint—to transition out of the genre’s competitive infrastructure and ease into the role of genre-spanning artist and true celebrity. Now, on his debut album, he has proven more clearly than ever to be comfortable dealing in a stylistic alchemy which fuses different speeds, styles, and approaches, both rapping and singing. There are songs for the rave and the charts, for grime fans and US rap fans. In other words, AJ is on his way to conquering the mainstream.
“There’s loads of genres on it but everything is cohesive,” he says of the album. “I didn’t want it to sound experimental, I wanted it to sound natural. At the start it was about making three key songs that I really liked and then building the whole album around them.” Which songs? “‘Necklace,’ ‘Ladbroke Grove’, and ‘Rina’. Because those three songs are completely different topics, genres, and moods to build everything else around. You know with football teams, you find the sickest midfielder and build a team around them? So, like, people always say England build their team around Dele Alli because he’s a midfielder, and he’s young. Tottenham build it around Eriksen, Man U [Manchester United] around Pogba. Those tracks are like the strong midfielder,” he concludes, smiling at his detailed footballing analogy.
AJ showcases his ability to scan across his favorite UK genres and collaborate with some of the most trusted stewards of domestic urban music in 2019, whilst proving how London’s broad, melting-pot eclecticism has come to define his sonic aesthetic. After all, he says, he grew up listening to his mum’s records: James Brown, Mobb Deep and LL Cool J, in equal measure to those she bought for him as his ear turned to more contemporary soundscapes, like Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner and Lethal Bizzle’s “POW!”.
For “Ladbroke Grove,” an ode to his hometown, AJ teams up with Bristol-born UK garage producer Conducta and samples Walsall’s soul queen Jorja Smith (“Garage is still my favorite music genre,” he adds). On “Country Star,” the swinging, thumping bass of drill music is overlaid with country guitar. Other contributors on the album include UK rap super-producer Steel Banglez, bass fusion specialist and AJ’s “mate from the ends” Cadenza, who he recorded “Plan B” with in New York at the start of the album’s creative process, and road-rap godfather Giggs for a verse on “Nothing But Net.”
“That was mad, still!” AJ says of working with one of his idols. “I was under pressure. He’s a lot older than me, he’s got mad experience... that boss aura. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t care about other people’s opinions. If he likes you, he likes you. He invited me to the studio to chill, so to some extent I already knew he was cool with me.”
The morning before AJ and I meet, he had appeared on BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire show, live on national television. He was, he says, “ambushed,” and it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. In the clip, which quickly gained traction on Twitter, the interviewer Chloe Tilley starts by questioning him about his decision to have strippers twerking in the video for “Psych Out!,” filmed in Atlanta, and asks whether he ever features “strong women” in his visuals. Then she inquires whether or not his videos are a “shout out to gangs in London.” I ask him to talk me through the experience.
“I said the best answer I could, which was also the truth. Everyone has their own opinion: I said my mum doesn’t like the video. But I wanted to visit the culture out in Atlanta and stripping is a culture there. I don’t mistreat women. Most of my team are women. And the women in the video, I know some of them, they will tell you: they’re taking control of their own destiny. If they wanna strip for big money that’s their business. It’s not up to anyone else to say that they’re not strong women because they strip.”
“Anyway, I thought after that bit she would relax," he continues. "But then she went even madder! I was gonna walk off but I thought I’d be professional, grin and act like she hadn’t rustled me. That’s what she wanted. She would have trended for that! At the end of the day, it came across to me as racist. She’s seen a group of black boys in a video and been like: ‘This guy’s a rapper, black people are chilling together, so they must be a gang.’ Anyway, now it’s happened, I know how to handle it in the future.”
We stand up to leave because the driver’s arrived downstairs to take us to Ladbroke Grove. I ask AJ if he feels like the way he was treated reflects a general tendency to demonize certain demographics that is taking place in the British media, in light of the way UK drill music has been censored by police in recent months.
“Not all media is disconnected," he says. "Only the media who want to be are disconnected. If they really wanted to do their research and look at my music and see what I’m about, they wouldn’t be portraying me like that. I’m on a Forbes list but they’re trying to make me out to be some sort of criminal? I’m 24, I’m heading for a Top 5 album independently, but they want to talk about me being gang affiliated? Nah.”
AJ Tracey's self-titled debut album is out now. Listen here.