AJ Tracey likes video games. He's playing one right now, on a massive TV – one as big as the front window on the top deck of a London bus. This time it's Fortnite, but he also plays Fifa and Call of Duty. Sometimes Monopoly too, the virtual version. "You can roll the dice by shaking the controllers,” he says, leaning back into a plush sofa. Plus there’s real cash at stake. “All the mandem come, it’s eight-player, we’ll get some alcohol out – some weed, if that’s your forte – some Nando’s and put some money down.”
We're in his new apartment, a lush, lavish space not too far from where he grew up in Ladbroke Grove, west London – a place he’s written into grime history. Not that he's here much, mind. Next to the front door a sad-looking Christmas tree slumps on its side. Another one stands in the living room, a full month after the festive season has ended. It’s not that the place is messy; AJ Tracey is immaculate (beside the trees, the place is clean and fresh). It’s just that he’s been travelling. Lots.
Recently he’s been to Australia, where he was booked for three shows over the New Year. Before that it was the Netherlands, last October. Then Germany, Belgium, Switzerland. Since breaking out in 2016 with “Thiago Silva” – his Dave collab which, through its flip of Prince Rapid’s iconic “Pied Piper” instrumental, bridged the gap between grime’s old and new gens and created a modern classic in the process – AJ’s dreams have become realised, one country and release at a time. When we meet, it’s a couple of weeks before he drops his long-awaited self-titled debut album, out Friday 8 February. Fans have salivated over this for years and it follows five EPs, notably 2016’s Lil Tracey and 2017’s Secure The Bag. But more on that later.
First, AJ is still playing Fortnite, and that’s cool because it means I get to walk around his place. The first thing I spot are the eight or so Bearbricks displayed in his home entertainment unit which, if you remember the size of the TV, is probably bigger than your entire bedroom wall. And if, like me, you’re wondering what Bearbricks are – I had to ask – they’re basically a cartoon-style model of a bear but for hypebeasts. “It’s like a collectible thing, like Supreme or whatever,” AJ explains, pointing out a Mickey Mouse design, one of his favourites. And some of them sell for loads. I’m talking about £500.
See, AJ likes to collect things. There are his awards, like the GRM Daily Track of The Year for “Butterflies”, his 2018 dancehall collaboration with Not3s. You’ve also got his trophy for winning MTV Brand New as well as DJ Mag’s Best British MC, both from 2017, plus another one from GRM, and a few more. What I’m saying is, there’s a fair few. It’s impressive. But to a bystander like me who hasn’t won anything, they’re also not that interesting – there’s only so much you can get from looking at glass. So, as AJ keeps playing his Xbox, I keep walking, this time toward the kitchen. My mouth opens. “What the fuck is that?”. Shit. Pause again. “Sorry – I’m being so nosey,” I say, aware I’m openly wandering around the open lounge/kitchen of someone who is a) famous and b) a stranger, and therefore am being incredibly rude and intrusive.
Luckily, despite my prying, AJ laughs. It’s OK. The object I’m looking at is a sort of black rose bouquet, kept in glass (?) – a gift from his girl. Next, I point at a globe statue featuring the words “The World Is Yours”. “Isn’t that from Scarface?” It is. But – like the five unwrapped skateboards AJ keeps in the lounge and the two doormats in the hallway – it’s one of Supreme’s limited edition drops. Since he already has so much stuff, I tell AJ he should give me a skateboard so I can sell it for some money. He laughs again, still engaged in Fortnite. Think about how your friend acts when they text and talk. This is kinda like that, except AJ is a rapper – who at this point is five, ten minutes into an interview – and he’s also a hardcore online gamer who can’t afford and doesn’t want to lose a round.
So is this what you do when you’re not making music, I ask, after he’s set his customised Xbox controller aside. “Yeah, literally. I play games or watch Twitch streams of people playing games or talk to my friends about games.” This is the kind of guy who owned a Sega Dreamcast – a gamer’s games console. Clearly, he loves gaming. He owns seven more Xbox controllers; some for the bedroom, where he has another Xbox, plus a Nintendo Switch, which is on the coffee table in front of us. When I ask for his top five titles, he leans back, smiles, then – without barely a beat passing – replies: “Call of Duty, Runescape, League of Legends, Fortnite and Monopoly.” So, given that AJ Tracey is so obsessed with playing video games – and some of the nerdiest ones at that – how did he end up becoming a rapper?
“The first thing I ever wanted to be was a lawyer, because I love arguing,” he says, grinning. “But I’m very lazy. I’m intelligent, but I’m very lazy, so it seemed like a bit too much.” The next route was football – some kind of college course to become a personal trainer that funnelled into QPR’s football academy. Then boom: injury. Classic. This is a story I’ve heard from nearly every rapper east to west, except in AJ’s case he says he knew he wasn’t good enough to go any further. He enrolled in a criminology degree at London Metropolitan University next. He didn’t really take notes, though. Instead, he’d often write lyrics, jotting down bars in a lecture hall. Because, really, he wanted to become a rapper like his idols: Merky ACE and Skepta. “My mum always supports me and she said I might as well give it a shot. ‘What’ve you got to lose?’ So I thought ‘Fuck it, I’ll give it a shot’. He dropped out.
Whatever target he aimed at, it worked. The usual low-key things came first. A Soundcloud release here (see the first in his “Wifey Riddim” series, from 2016, one of the last surviving tracks from a previous era). A video there. True heads might even remember his old crew, My Team Paid, or the 33-song mixtape he uploaded to Datpiff in 2014 – proof AJ had been rapping long before quitting university. He’d been releasing music under various guises since 2011 but it was in 2015, when Sian Anderson started running his tunes on 1Xtra, that things took off. That was when the AJ Tracey you’ve likely known for the past few years came into view. The one who released “Pasta” – that hook-laden tune you first put on at a pre-drinks in 2016 and continue to play because, like “Thiago Silva”, it’s a totem of that era. The one who had a regular set on MODE FM, where he traded bars and proved his worth as a rapper. The one who – when he appeared on the UK’s most visible rap platform – started to become heralded as the future of grime.
When he’s rapping, AJ is a different beast to the one who’s probably destroyed you online. He’s still the same person though – like anyone, different situations necessitate different moods. On his records, you might see a boastful, cocky side to AJ Tracey, perhaps reminiscent of the cheeky guy you fancied at school. Yet there’s barely a disconnect between the AJ who named a track after a fictional superhero and shot the video in New York (he claims he started the trend of UK rappers filming abroad; beginning in Paris with Dave but also Tokyo, Cuba and – skipping over a handful of others – Atlanta, for album single “Psych Out!”) and the AJ who grew up playing Yu-Gi-Oh. It’s just that his music displays the heightened, braggadocious side of his personality.
His raps reference fashion labels Prada, Gucci and Off-White (“I’m in Off-White, I hit the jackpot,” he says on new track “Jackpot”). But more than that, he takes risks with his music. Back in October, 2018, he tweeted “[sic] im the most versatile artist in london you don’t have to agree with it its a fact”. And while that statement might be debatable depending on who you’re sharing a spliff with on that particular evening, it’s hard to deny that AJ has the potential to be the most diverse rapper going. Where some MCs stick to a singular sound – be it road, drill, garage, bashment, whatever – AJ Tracey’s debut album traverses genres, charting his own personal relationship with music as well as a desire to express himself. “The narrative of the record is me. Everything about me. How I grew up. Spurs. Garage music. Estates. Tracksuits. Trinidad. My friends. The narrative of the story is myself: it’s my whole story in one,” he says. So what you’re getting is a sample – well, several samples, in fact – of the various things that make up AJ Tracey, as well as guest appearances from Giggs, Not3s and Jay Critch.
Still, elements of these samples have to come from somewhere. AJ might provide the words, but a whole host of producers bring their own flavour to the album too. Swifta Beater embeds “Doing It” with the same bolshy energy that made JME’s “Man Don’t Care” go as hard as it did. Conducta shines up “Ladbroke Grove” with the colourful fruitiness of UK garage via a sample from a prominent young UK singer – one you'll recognise when you hear the album. “What I’ve noticed about AJ is how his quickness and sharpness lyrically comes from the background of being a grime MC,” says Steel Banglez, who produced “Wifey Riddim 3”. “I don’t think it took him longer than half an hour to go through that song. He was so quick – it was mad.”
Impressively, AJ produces too. There’s “Tell Man Twice”, a collaboration with his cousin Big Zuu, from 2017, and “LA4AWEEK”, also from 2017, co-produced with Nyge, an old friend and producer of many tracks on this album as well as Smoke Boyz’s “Lock Arff”, among others. He tells me there’s a version of the album featuring half of his own beats, where he raps over his own production. Thing is, it wasn’t polished enough. He needs to put time in. “I want everyone to hear my production and realise it’s hard,” he says. So does this mean that one day we’ll see an AJ Tracey album with only AJ Tracey beats? “Yeah, I see that as my route.” He sounds confident. In fact, throughout our conversation, there’s not one moment when he doesn’t come across as self-assured.
He has good reason to feel that way too. Thanks to the streaming era, he’s already rich as fuck (he tells me he paid his rent in one yearly chunk). He’s as charming and endearing as he is self-assured – a confidence less aggressive than arrogance. There are lots of other qualities to him too but what I’m really getting at is that AJ Tracey is already a star. It would be dumb to suggest his love for gaming takes precedence over travelling the world via rap. Yet, there’s a sense that even if AJ didn’t have all that going for him – no GRM Awards, no sold-out tours – he’d still be the same person. There’s a specific air about him, one you feel in his kind yet mischievous presence, hear in his lyrics, see collected in his apartment. He loves to play the game and he wants to win. He wants to win it all.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.