Grime has littered 2016 with fireworks. Skepta stormed the festivals and won a Mercury Prize for his No.2 album Konnichiwa; Stormzy had his birthday party at a theme park; Kano staged the mother of all comebacks with his Made In The Manor record.
And it’s not over yet. As the year draws to a close, AJ Tracey’s Lil Tracey EP brings yet another explosion.
The 22-year-old MC says he’s “stepped up in every way possible” for his third EP, a slick six-song set released on his own My Team Paid label that explodes from the speakers as if in Technicolor.
“The sound is more mature, the production is intense and the visuals are on a completely new level,” he explains down the phone from his home in Ladbroke Grove.
Thanks to his artwork and videos, it’s easy to imagine AJ’s music as one giant comic strip, set to glossy beats and rapid bars. “Everything has to be perfect,” he says simply.
“The aesthetic means as much as the music, the video has to look as good as the music sounds, you get me?” If you don’t, check out Buster Cannon or Leave Me Alone on YouTube.
The EP isn’t AJ’s only recent big news. In October, he received public patronage from a very famous source. After endorsing Skepta and Boy Better Know, last month, Drake gave AJ a shout out on his OVO radio show.
Ask him about it and he lets out one of the many machine gun giggles that pepper our conversation. “Big up Drake, that’s my boy. That was sick, still,” he says of the mention.
“I could say to my mum, Oh this DJ bigged me up and she’d be like, Oh OK, but when I said Drake did she was like, What! Drake! Everyone knows Drake, my gran knows who Drake is.”
Indeed they do. The Canadian recently remixed Wanna Know, by London rapper Dave, who AJ worked with on Thiago Silva, which they brilliantly named after a Paris Saint-Germain footballer. So is a collaboration in the works?
AJ’s deliberately cagey. “We’ll have to see. Who’d turn down Drake?” he says, pointing out “these collabs are not out of reach...”
You get the sense it’s far from unlikely. AJ believes “you can do these things if you put your mind to it”. He’s been doing so since he started rapping aged 11, spurred on by his dad’s records and his mum’s work as a pirate radio DJ.
Taking influence from US hip-hop, his sound has developed into an America-friendly blend of grime and trap.
AJ is consciously trying to appeal to ears across the Atlantic and beyond, and speeds up 70bpm trap beats to grime’s usual 140. “Americans can obviously relate,” he explains, adding that “clarity” is his biggest focus. “I want people to know what I’m saying.”
This drive is coupled with confidence (“I know I’m good”) that could see this avid Tottenham Hotspur fan and former Criminology student blitz the mainstream in 2017. It feels like it’s his turn.
He supports Stormzy’s campaign to increase diversity at the BRIT Awards and is ready to capitalise on the wider music industry’s belated embrace of grime.
“Grime will grow again next year, the attention is definitely healthy,” he says. He has a message for Apple too: “They need to give us a grime category! They will, trust me.”
For now, AJ will keep pushing forward. His debut album is coming “whenever I’m ready” and his plans for 2017 include “outstanding visuals and proper entertainment”. We’ll enjoy keeping up.