AJ Tracey – ‘Flu Game’ review: UK rapper remains in a league of his own

The Londoner bills himself as music's Michael Jordan with an ode the player's infamous 1997 match, supported by star teammates such as Kehlani and Nav

For the last few years, the UK has arguably been the centre point of artists pushing boundaries and amalgamating genres. West London rapper AJ Tracey has linked it all together, yet is playing a different sport altogether. He has managed to float across genres and artists, while maintaining his status as an independent artist. Tracey’s second album, ‘Flu Game’, was always meant to reinforce this narrative: one of an artist soaring above the rest of the country.

Billed as a throwback to the late ‘90s and early ’00s, down to the album cover and promo run, ‘Flu Game’ is named and modelled after the nickname ascribed to the infamous 1997 basketball match between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. Star player Michael Jordan fell ill with food poisoning the night before, but somehow led the Bulls to a two-point victory and eventual playoff series win, cementing the Bulls as one of the greatest sports teams in history.

“I feel like that’s what [Michael Jordan] was all about,” AJ told NME in his recent cover story interview. “Even with him being ill with food poisoning, he can barely move, but he’s dropping points that the other team wishes they could drop. [The album] is about when we go through hard times, but you have to always make sure you put your best foot forward and be great to try to break boundaries. That’s what I’m about to release.”

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On ‘Flu Game’, in short, Tracey bills himself as the Jordan of UK rap, casting a wide net of features to ably support him. Widening his web to America and Canada, Tracey pulls in bright and talented UK artists Digga D (on ‘Bringing It Back’), Mabel (‘West Ten’) and MoStack (‘Dinner Guest’), while securing hard-hitting features from the likes of global stars NAV (‘Kukoč’), T-Pain (‘Summertime Shootout’) and Kehlani (‘Coupé’).

“The way I flex is different, I got so much confidence / I shot the 1942 and fuck the consequence / When I reach levels that I want, they’ll build me monuments” Tracey raps on album opener ‘Anxious’, bringing listeners and fans up to speed on his current life with bursts of braggadocio rap – a common theme throughout ‘Flu Game’.

This is followed by Canadian producer, rapper and global superstar Nav’s appearance on ‘Kukoč’, a drill-heavy track that finds both Tracey and Nav trading bars, their voices skating comfortably on the beat. “Know Virgil got Off-White tan bricks / I was sendin’ bitches Uber, can’t stand Lyft / Everything that I do is gigantic / I’m a waterboy, drown a titanic”, Nav rhymes. Digga D slots in neatly next on ‘Bringing it Back’, a darker track on which the production is chillier than the UK rappers’ voices, which nestle deeply into the groove. ‘Cheerleaders’, another AJ Tracey solo cut, bookends the stronger first quarter of the album.

Across 16 tracks, ‘Flu Game’ possesses commercially successful singles such as ‘Anxious’ and ‘Dinner Guest’ and ‘West Ten’, as well as smash-in-waiting ‘Kukoč’ ’. True, the energy dips halfway through, with the album losing focus a little, dropping points that don’t allow it to stand up to the pre-album hype. It’s surprising to hear ‘Draft Pick’, ‘Eurostep’, ‘Cherry Blossom’ and ‘Glockie’ in sequential order, considering they’re all solo tracks. In trying to emulate Michael Jordan, AJ perhaps relies too heavily on himself without first looking at how his teammates can help.

‘Flu Game’ soon picks up again, though. The best songs and features are left at the bottom of the album; ‘Little More Love’ is an upbeat Afroswing club-ready track that is sure to be played at summertime post-lockdown BBQs. The infectious melody is loose, marrying all the best elements of a successful AJ Tracey tune: a catchy hook, easy rhymes and a leisurely, memorable beat. On ‘Summertime Shootout’, American star T-Pain’s presence is arguably not felt as much as it should be. ‘Top Dog’ is an infectious, anthemic ode to early 2000’s R&B: the kind of track that would be put on an end-of-year compilation CD in 2001 and spun multiple times in 2021 at nostalgic club nights.

Tracey’s gruff vocals on ‘Coupé’ sound like a combination of Ja Rule and 50 Cent, with a silky Kehlani feature to match. American rapper Sahbabbii and London singer MillieGoLightly trade verses on ‘Numba 9’, while the album ends on two strong songs with ‘Dinner Guest’ and ‘West Ten’, the latter as memorably hooky as it is vulnerable.

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The last quarter of the album brings it back to Tracey’s brief. ‘Flu Game’ cements AJ Tracey as a commercially successful rapper still discovering new ways to craft hooks and clever wordplay. Although not every track is a total slam dunk, AJ has here crafted another successful project whose streaming numbers, singles and infectious melodies will live on in memory – just like Michael Jordan’s infamous match.

Details

Release date: April 16

Record label: Independent

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