A real artist, who understands business too, few musicians master the maintenance of an independent identity and the engagement with the mainstream quite as seamlessly as AJ Tracey. To regularly hit the charts in strong positions takes something extraordinary, and the rapper and songwriter demonstrates that the two do not need to be in conflict. Feeling drawn to rap from the age of six, his mother, who is a DJ, inspired him to learn about a diverse range of music. And later on, things would take a rapid turn, bringing on a music career that demanded a life of its own.
It was clear that the West London lyricist possessed the skills to be distinct and uncompromising. With versatility at the core, Tracey has shown that his vocals can work in any genre and style, and his second album is full of hits, big hooks and well-defined bars. The overarching point of reference of this record is basketball. A faux press conference was streamed on Twitter in March, in which the emcee acted the character of a basketball player, who had signed a new deal with fictional team Revenge Athletic, the breaking news bulletin for imagined channel West 1 News TV showed Tracey take questions from a room of reporters.
And the basketball topic emerges on this record. The title ‘Flu Game’ is in itself a reference to basketball star Michael Jordan’s legendary performance in Game five of the 1997 NBA Finals. During the game the physically weakened Jordan overcame effects of a severe bout of stomach flu-like symptoms he suffered the night before, transforming the game, he led the Chicago Bulls team to a victory of 90-88 over the Utah Jazz team.
Followed by opener ‘Anxious’, the themed thread is carried over to song two ‘Kukoč’, in the tribute the track references the former player Toni Kukoč. After a successful period in Europe, the Croatian became the first established European player to be part of the North American league.
But more things are on display. A speedy and stimulating affair, ‘Flu Game’ is a place of pace, intensity, and variety. The ability to blend grime, drill, pop, garage, dancehall, and soul with such ease is consistent throughout. Aided by collaborators such as Mabel, Sahbabii, MoStack, Digga D, T-Pain, Kehlani and more, there is plenty to keep mind and soul engaged. The punchy hits are blended in with quieter moments. Tracey is an admirer of many aspects of Japanese culture, and ‘Cherry Blossom’ is a mesmeric reflection on the tradition and the way of life, while the dreamy ‘Glockie’ offers subtle, close to meditative vibes, delivered over soft guitar lines.
Using the flu game as a type of metaphor, set in the present day, it projects the idea of delivering a stellar performance when the odds are stacked against you. Is this AJ Tracey’s self-reflection on his own career up until now? Considering what he has achieved in challenging circumstances? It is an intriguing interpretation that seems unforgettable, leaving a strong impression of him as an artist and this remarkable album.
Words: Susan Hansen
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