Exclusives 15 April 2021
Author: Ore Bolarin

GRM Exclusive: The Evolution of AJ Tracey

15 April 2021
The evolution of AJ Tracey GRM

AJ Tracey is one of the UK’s biggest artists, and his rise to the top demonstrates how versatile and diverse AJ’s cataloge is. He’s been in the game for nearly ten years and has never shown signs of slowing down or falling off. He’s dipped into multiple different genres and been successful in each one and despite all the commercial success, AJ has still displayed that he’s still one of the UK’s best MCs.

With music being released under the name ‘Looney’ as far back as 2011, AJ Tracey first started breaking onto the scene in 2014, making noise in the pirate radio scene. He garnered even more attention in 2015 with the release of his debut EP The Front. The project included bangers such as “The Lane”, “Champions League” and his take on Tinie Tempah’s classic “Wifey Riddim”. The Front established AJ as a rising talent with roots in grime and garage. 2015 also saw the release of AJ’s EPs Alex Moran and AJ’s Stocking Filler. Both of these EP’s continued to show AJ’s credentials as an MC and a rapper, and included more classic AJ Tracey tracks like “Spirit Bomb” and “Wifey Riddim 2” respectively.

AJ’s aggressive flow and infectious energy shone through during his come-up and were part of the reason why he became so popular. His credibility as an MC was solidified when he dropped his famous “Packages” freestyle in 2016. With over 16 million views, this song is still one of AJ’s most viewed tracks and a testament to his rapping ability. AJ’s hard-hitting flow, coupled with intricate wordplay and bars such as the line, “Still on my case, tryna line up cells/I’m just tryna cool nuh like Tobz/Like Gohan, I ain’t tryna find them Cells.” Today “Packages” still remains one of the UK’s most legendary freestyles.

AJ followed up “Packages” with “Thiago Silva”, collaborating with Santan Dave; who was also on the rise at the time. This track became a UK summer anthem and was perfectly timed with the grime scene’s revival, with the instrumental sampling Ruff Sqwad’s “Pied Piper”. “Thiago Silva” shone a spotlight onto grime, introducing new fans to the genre and Complex even listed the track as one of ‘Grime’s Most Impactful Tracks of the 2010s’. Riding on the success of these two singles in 2016, AJ won Best Breakthrough Act at the Rated Awards, and was also nominated for the Best Newcomer and Best Grime Act categories at the MOBOs that year. AJ even got a Drake co-sign with the Canadian rapper shouting him out on his OVO Radio show.

It became clear that AJ Tracey was soon going to be a household name as one of grimes most exciting rappers. However, AJ clearly wasn’t going to stop there, and his evolution started to come into the forefront from this period onwards, and was seen in his next two EPs released in December 2016. The first EP entitled Lil Tracey EP saw AJ expand the types of instrumentals he used. The grime influence was still clearly there as he worked with producers like Faze Miyake and Tre Mission, but on songs like “Luke Cage” and “Pasta”, it was clear to see that AJ was branching out in terms of his sound.

“Luke Cage”, named after the Marvel superhero, still contained AJ’s signature blend of greazy bars and catchy flows, but the track was more UK rap rather than just grime, drifting away from the standard 140 BPM. The same can be said for “Pasta” which on the other hand had a more mellow instrumental courtesy of Nyge, that was punctuated by AJ’s confident, clear delivery. In the same month, AJ gifted us a Daily Duppy chock-full of intricate football bars and references.

Moving into 2017, AJ was nominated for BBC’s ‘Sound of 2017’ Award from his breakthrough year in 2016, and went on his first tour, coming after the release of his fifth EP, Secure The Bag! which dropped in October 2017. With this project AJ expanded his sound even further, drawing more heavily on his American influences and even linked up with Florida’s Denzel Curry on one of the project’s standout hits “Alakazam” alongside JME. AJ called upon Nyge once again who produced six out of the eight tracks on the EP. The result was a slick, polished project that once again had AJ experimenting with different sounds. The sole single “Blacked Out” was a classic grime riddim with the beat produced by Sir Spyro and AJ Tracey giving us more crazy bars. He continues his theme of Dragon Ball Z references in his songs after “Spirit Bomb” and “Packages”, this time saying, “If I ever walk in, I’m Akuma/Nah, Frieza, Cell, Buu, Broly/Still got friends that’ll leave man holey”.

Other songs on the project see AJ dipping into different genres such as the Afropop inspired “Shisha”, “Quarterback” which featured a piano-based trap instrumental, and the mellow “luvd u” which sees AJ flexing on an ex that did him wrong. A statement to the rest of the scene, Secure the Bag! showcased AJ’s development into one of the UK’s best artists. His versatility, confident yet laidback style, and ability to make bangers were clearly on display with this project. Still evolving as an artist, AJ made his production debut on “LA4AWEEK”, co-produced by Nyge and featured American artists Swoosh and Sloan Evans, released in April 2017. Later that year, AJ produced long-time friend and MTP (My Team Paid) label-mate Big Zuu’s “Tell Man Twice”, released in August 2017. AJ’s tendency to try new sounds stems from his approach to making music. Speaking to Acclaim he said, “I mostly make music for myself. I don’t make it for the fans—I love my fans to bits but I make it for me, it’s my art. If people like it, lovely. If they don’t, it is what it is.”

2018 marked the first year since 2013 in which AJ did not release a project. Despite this, we were treated to a host of singles and features including the afrobeats banger “Butterflies” with Not3s, and a return to grime with “Doing It”. AJ also went a feature run, lending his talents to D Double E, Craig David and Not3s on their respective projects, as well as dropping one of the hardest verses of the year on Unknown T’s “Leave Dat Trap”. Now one of the UK’s most popular rappers, AJ announced his debut album in November 2018, going on to release the project in February 2019.

The 15-track album included features from Giggs, Jay Critch and Not3s. It saw AJ take from all his influences and favourite genres, rolling them into one project. The West Londoner incorporates trap, grime, dancehall and garage into many of the album’s tracks. The project’s standout banger “Ladbroke Grove” (produced by Conducta) took the UK by storm, amassing over 39 million views on YouTube and 140 million Spotify streams. It featured vocals from Jorja Smith and served as both a tribute to the area where AJ grew up, and a love letter to garage music. Other notable songs included the head-bopping anthem “Triple S”, the Nyge produced track “Nothing But Net” which saw Giggs shell it, making for a highlight feature and the third instalment of AJ’s “Wifey Riddim” series of songs, this time produced by Steel Banglez. AJ once again proved why he was one of the UK’s most exciting artists, with his debut album landing at #3 on the UK Album Charts.

AJ didn’t stop there, and in the same year he dropped, he appeared on the soundtrack to Netflix’s Top Boy with “Elastic”. On top of that he treated us to a highly anticipated collaboration with Skepta, titled “Kiss and Tell”, and the Young Adz assisted “Halloween”. His work rate being a testament to his mentality, AJ said in an interview with NME, “I need to be in that mix. I need to be in the mix with 50 Cent, Jackie Chan, the Michael Jordans – the household names all over the planet”.

Despite a pandemic-filled 2020, AJ continued to show how his sound was evolving. He released singles with MoStack and Mabel. He appeared on Headie One’s Edna alongside Stormzy for the eerie banger “Ain’t It Different” and dropped one of the UK’s biggest tracks that year, “Rain” teaming up with Manchester artist Aitch and American producer Tay Keith. Capping off the year, AJ released arguably his best project yet, with the 9-track EP, Secure The Bag! 2. With a slowthai feature on the ominous “Graveyard Shift”, a sequel to “LA4AWEEK” where he once again joined forces with Swoosh and Sloan Evans, as well as a spin on his 2017 classic “Quarterback” with “Red and Green”, this new project saw AJ at his most refined.

Now as we gear up AJ’ latest outing with his second album Flu Game, it becomes apparent that AJ Tracey has been dropping hits and bangers consistently for several years now. His evolution as an artist has seen him provide us with classic tracks and solid projects, and he has clearly left a lasting impression on the UK scene. Despite all this, he is by no means done, he’s still evolving as an artist and 2021 looks to be another exciting year for the West Londoner.