A refusal to be boxed in to one genre has been a star player in the career of West London’s AJ Tracey, and it almost came to a fault when he brought the versatility of his self-titled debut album to Manchester’s Albert Hall. A surprisingly solid opening hour from UK trap artist Yung Fume preceded Tracey, who took Manchester on a short and dizzying journey from grime to laidback Afro-Swing to swaggering trap. “Vibe” was the word of the day for Tracey, seamlessly transitioning the crowd from the frenzied jumping of Fume’s set to the swaying of his album opener Plan B, with its bubbling percussion and slow-burning flow. Tracey seemed most in his element when playing his most energetic tracks – Ladbroke Grove, an ode to his hometown set to a thumping garage beat and earworm of a Jorja Smith sample, had the crowd feeding off his every line. The call-and-response of the memorable hook was reminiscent of the more traditional, grimier radio sets artists like Tracey cut their teeth on, lending an old-school feel to what was a very young crowd.
This gaggle of newer, and notably younger fans did much to explain his setlist that night, as Tracey seemed almost too eager to divert from his quintessentially UK roots. He gave a spirited performance of 2016’s Buster Cannon near the show’s end, but phoned in what should have been an electrifying performance of Luke Cage from his Grime-centric ‘Lil Tracey’ EP. After limping through only half of Packages, the jewel in the crown of his discography and the grime-drill hybrid with addictive flows that cemented his rise some 3 years ago, I began to wonder whether it was Tracey himself or a crowd of newer listeners that was more to blame for the palpable drop of energy in the middle of the set. The infectiousness of those first 15 minutes was lost, and was never fully recovered, the hook-heavy nature of all Tracey’s material coming to an obvious detriment when audience participation was clearly swaying in and out with the verses and choruses.
Tracey did manage to almost pull the show back near the end; Country Star was a bombastic favourite, and his ability to draw a surprising amount of excitement from the laid-back, Not3s-assisted Butterflies is a testament to Tracey’s performing potential. Closing the show with the more traditionally grime, Swifta-produced Doing It and a humble thank you to his fans, he reminded us that, as much as he tries to diversify, he still ultimately has passion for the music that made him successful. The short length of many of his songs made his set of just over an hour and a half feel even shorter, and despite the many high points the excessive versatility of the setlist deprived the show of an identity, an unfortunate sight from the usually cocky MC, leading to what was ultimately a perfectly fine, but middling, showcase of UK Rap.
Written by Kwesi Sekyi
You can listen to AJ Tracey’s latest self-titled album here.