At the tail-end of last year, use of the term ‘urban’ music came under the spotlight. “I hate and despise the word ‘urban’,” said Sam Taylor of label services company Kobalt in a widely-discussed interview. “Not only is ‘urban’ an obviously wrong category, but it is also borne out of racial stereotyping of black communities.” The point is a fair one. Under that ‘urban’ umbrella runs hip-hop, pop, bashment, afroswing, blues, R&B – the list goes on. It’s reductive in the extreme.
All of those aforementioned genres play a role on AJ Tracey’s long-awaited debut album. Like Yxng Bane before him, the Ladbroke Grove rapper has shaken off the need for a singular sound. Rising up as a Soundcloud-born grime star (“I’m a legendary grime MC,” he told NME in last week’s Big Read), Tracey is no longer content to let that genre – or any genre – confine him. It’s that which makes his bold claims of Transatlantic appeal seem somewhat reasonable.
It makes for a vibrant listen, too – one that wraps up British rap’s present-day eclecticism in a perfect package. His vocal fits any backing – the intro to the much-touted acoustic-based ‘Country Star’ might veer a little closer to Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’ than the collected works of Johnny Cash, but when Tracey croons atop it, you really won’t care. ‘Psych Out!’, meanwhile, is a pure radio hit. “Mummy, I’m a pop star”, he sarcastically sings, and he’s not far off. ‘Ladbroke Grove’ changes tack once again, opting for ’90s UK garage that could rival the greats of the genre.
He’s a star who’s vocally aligned himself with figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, and rightfully protested at the Government’s reaction to Grenfell, and it would be nice to see him bring this into his music. Yet when he smirks, “I’m rich and I’m hung” on ‘Wifey Riddim 3’, it sums up much of the lyrical content of ‘AJ Tracey’. Elsewhere, though, those lyrics point to his potential to break America.
The rapper name-checks American fast-food brand Chick-Fil-A – bad luck, Chicken Cottage – and gives Hennessy a mention (though admittedly rhymes “Henny” with “Lenny Henry”, which might be the most British thing ever). Overall, it’s a series of nods to the States that could feel trite, but – delivered in Tracey’s urgent flow – never feels tacked-on, or like he’s desperate for US recognition.
As a document of British rap’s indefinable present – a snapshot of a time that’s seen UK rappers springboard from grime’s international explosion, and warp sonic expectations at every opportunity – AJ Tracey’s debut is perhaps the best of the current crop; twisted, vibrant and ever-shifting, but linked with that confident voice. If we’re going to retire the term ‘urban’, ‘AJ Tracey’ is the perfect full-stop, a spiky, fully-ticked checklist of everything that word smooths over.