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Ladbroke Grove’s AJ Tracey first burst onto the UK scene back in 2016, strapped with an arsenal of freshly-sharpened tools that saw him swiftly weave past his competition. In the years following, AJ cemented his place amongst UK rap royalty with a signature, rapid-fire delivery and a hunger for the W that would quickly see the North Londoner stand toe-to-toe and collaborate with some of the most revered MCs in the scene.
Since his initial debut, we’ve seen AJ ascend from Rookie of The Year to MVP status with projects like Secure The Bag! and his debut album AJ Tracey in 2019, consistently levelling up and experimenting with sounds and styles as if each project is another chance at the championship ring.
Today we see AJ return to peak form with his newest album Flu Game, a title that references NBA legend Michael Jordan and an infamous 1997 game between The Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz that saw Jordan score a whopping 38 points to claim victory for the Bulls—despite having a severe case of food poisoning.
Speaking to AJ about the album’s creation, he revealed that despite the various setbacks of being trapped in a global pandemic, he was inspired to channel Jordan’s greatness and deliver a 16-track project that showcases his skills as an artist and doubles as a personal reminder that your goals can still be achieved during times of adversity. Over a zoom call between London and Melbourne, we caught up with AJ Tracey to chat lockdowns, life lessons, and collaborations with hall of fame worthy artists like T-Pain.
AJ Tracey, how are you? Congrats on the new project.
I’m good my bro, thank you.
I feel like time has been a bit warped over the last year. I can’t tell if it felt fast or slow—maybe a bit of both. How was your 2020?
I feel exactly the same way bro, trust me. Dates are all merged together, I can’t tell how long we’ve been in lockdown for here or anything. To be honest, on a personal level it was pretty bad. On a career level though, really good thank you.
Did all that downtime come at a good time for you, or were you thrown out by it all?
I think the first lockdown came at a good time for me and it gave me a moment to breathe, just from having a hectic career. But after like three months of having some space and breathing, it just became crazy for me. I hate taking time off work.
Let’s talk about Flu Game. Can you break down the meaning behind the title?
So you can take it either way. you can see it as us talking about the pandemic, we’re are literally in the flu pandemic—the COVID game. But it’s also a reference to Michael Jordan, how he works, how he achieves things. He was ill during the flu game, game 5 of the season and he still dropped a crazy amount of points, far more than most players usually get. So to me, that says; no matter what you’re going through, you can still get on with it, you can still achieve your goals and that’s what I wanted to say with the album.
What was your approach to this project? Do you think your style or process has changed much since the AJ Tracey project from a couple of years back?
Yeah, to be honest, I think it has. I think with that first project my approach was very sporadic, I was all over the place man. I don’t really do drugs but I was drinking and turning up. I was just living life, but now I’m a little more mature, I’m an adult now. I had to sit down and get to work and stop focusing on stuff that doesn’t matter and try not to get distracted by little things. So this album was a lot more thought out, I planned and executed it like a grown man, whereas the other one I was 23 when I first started writing it, so that was me coming out of that stage in my life.
Do you have a favourite track on the project?
I’ll be honest, I feel like you could ask me this question every day and get a different answer, but right now, it’s ‘Coupé’ with Kehlani, that’s a banger. I feel like that’s a tune that everyone needed; the sweet female vocals level the tone out from my aggression a little bit, mellows it out, so I think that’s the one.
I wanted to talk about some of the features on the project. I was glad to see you worked with Sahbabii again. I think he’s one of the most slept on artists of this generation. I know you had him jump on the remix for your track ‘Zelda’, and now he’s on Flu Game, too. What can you tell me about working with Sahbabii?
I’m so glad you said that bro, I’m really happy you said that! [laughs]. He’s super unique. His content is super different to what everyone else is talking about. His style, his swagger, his cadence. Where he’s from; his story, his family. He doesn’t do many features so there’s the mystique. Everything about him—he’s just a cold artist and I feel privileged because he doesn’t work with many people.
He doesn’t go around and spread himself too thin and he only does the things that are super important to him, and I really rock with that. When you proceed through life like that, then everyone knows that you’re fully in it with everything you do. Yeah, so Sahbabii that’s one of my favourites; he killed his verse as well.
Millie Golightly is on that track too, I remember her from Young Thug’s Beautiful Thugger Girls project. Is that how you first came across her?
No, she’s actually from the ends but she’s over in Atlanta with Thug and them. I just thought the juxtaposition was dope, she’s like a white British girl with a posh accent, and she’s rapping all that gang shit. I’ll be honest bro, as much as I love Sah, I think she spun us both on that track. [laughs]
‘Bringing It Back’ with Digga D is another standout for me. I noticed that you were referencing your old LinkUp TV freestyle in the music video, and Digga was recreating his freestyle from Next Up. Can you tell me more about that?
[Laughs] Yeah, you got it, bro! That’s so crazy, all of that. There’s so much story there. I could explain it for hours, but obviously, we’re from the same hood. Nobody from West London was really making drill back then, and I had listened to Chicago drill for a long time, so I thought I’d try and attack a drill beat [on LinkUp TV], and I went in and mashed it up. Everyone was like, “Wow! What is this!” and after that, I really just left it alone, not in a cocky way. I come from a grime background, so I was used to rapping on like 140BMP, so it was so natural and so easy to me that I just thought that it wasn’t enough of a challenge. Little did I know that not making much drill music made everyone want it 100 times more. So it was only right that to give them more drill, I had to make it reminiscent of the first one. Digga mashed it up, too; he wanted his part to be reminiscent of that first freestyle, too. We wanted to come with that energy.
The last feature I needed to get the story for is ‘Summertime Shootout’ with T-Pain. That’s a serious name to have on the project.
Of course, he’s the GOAT. Basically, everyone who is on the album I had an existing relationship with, minus T-Pain. I rarely work with any artist that I don’t know personally, but T-Pain is such a legend that I just had to reach out and be like, “Yo bro, I know you don’t know me, but this is who I am and this is what I do. I’d love it if you fuck with me”—and then the fact that he did, I’m just super grateful. I grew up listening to him. All of us, from over your side in Australia to my side in London or Paris, or wherever you are; If you use auto-tune in that melodic rapping way, then that’s his ting bro, he’s your dad—that’s how it goes. So for that reason, I had to work with him. When people read the tracklist, they just go, “How the fuck did you get that?”, so many people hit me up. But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
There seems to be an open-mindedness in the UK scene when it comes to artists tapping into different UK sounds. Nobody ever seems to be like “stay in your lane”. You started out doing grime and now you’re singing and taking elements of garage and drill and everything in between. What do you think it is that makes UK artists so good at owning their own sounds?
Shall I be honest? I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself but any time someone tries to say something along the lines of “Stay in your lane”, I just ignore it. I don’t give a shit, bro. You can never tell me to stay in my lane. My lane is everything. This whole music thing is my lane, everything about it. I do this. So for me, it’s just a mentality of not letting people box me in. But for the UK scene in general, London has always been trendy. We set the tempo, we don’t wait for someone else to do it, we like to make something new. That’s how I feel anyway, I can’t speak for everyone because some UK rappers are scared to come outside of the box.
The last time we spoke was in 2019 and I told you we had a few drill artists starting to pop up in Australia. It’s now 2021 and there’s now a pretty solid drill scene here. I’d say that a lot more of the music coming out here is being influenced by the UK rather than America now, too.
It’s gone crazy now bro, that was just a small thing back then but I’ve seen it’s gone crazy. I think that’s good man, and so it should be. Australia and the UK are much more similar than America. I feel like the link-up is much more authentic. When I go to Australia I feel at home, my Auntie lives in Australia, the culture is similar. There are obviously differences but how we live our lives and what we do are the same shit. When I hear OneFour spit it feels authentic, that’s real-life shit. Bro, when I come out there I’m hitting the stu and whoever is the most lit artist in each city is coming to the studio bro.
What’s one thing you learnt about yourself through the process of making Flu Season?
I know it sounds cocky but I really just learned I can do whatever I want to do. I already knew that I could, but as a rapper, you need to rate yourself otherwise nobody else is going to rate you—so I learned to love myself. Just doing a project at this scale and doing it fully independent and executing it showed me that I can really do this. It’s a massive risk but I’m hoping that it pays off and the next time I talk to you I’ve got a helicopter.
I’ll make sure to ask you about that next time.
[Laughs] Yeah ask me, bro! I really just feel like I’ve levelled up. Listening back to my last album—it’s ok, but I feel like the standard of rapping isn’t anywhere near as good as it is now.
Do you still have two pet goats somewhere?
I do but they are living on a farm now so I don’t have custody over them anymore. But they are happy and healthy so that’s good.
Are you still a big Ksubi collector?
I was man, but you know what it is? They are so hard to et over here and the ones we can get over here are the ones you guys had like 10 years ago so I kind of gave up. The last time I was there though, I swear to god I bought one of every item that was for sale just to make sure. I gotta wait for my next Australian tour.
Hopefully, we’ll see you over here before too long. Congratulations on the new album AJ, thanks for taking the time.
My guy. Love bro, take care.