Image: Earth_Agency (Credit: Jun Yukoyama)

AJ Tracey at The O2 Institute – the Wild and the Mild

AJ Tracey (real name Ché Moran) had a great 2016. With solo bangers like ‘Pasta’ and ‘Buster Cannon’, as well as features on Reekz MB’s ‘23’ and Coco’s ‘Big N Serious’, this Ladbroke Grove-born rapper has quickly made a name for himself on the UK grime scene.

Now on his Lil Tracey tour to promote his first album, last Sunday the rapper took to the Birmingham O2 Institute. It was a weird day for a gig and I found that the atmosphere was a bit off. But the event was sold out and his crowd, mainly mid-teens and male, were ready to rave. With a pool of vomit in the back and the walls literally dripping with sweat, I was expecting a mad one from AJ Tracey. His DJ, Jack Parker, had mosh pits going for an hour straight with club bangers like ‘Bad and Boujee’ and ‘Know Yourself’. One girl near me, upon hearing the familiar Drake beat, told her friend she hoped that Drake would come out. Mere days after Drake (in addition to Section Boyz, Skepta and Giggs) crashed Smoke Dawg’s XOYO gig in Shoreditch, I think the crowd were expecting something big. And they got it! Halfway through his set, Tracey brought out (Santan) Dave, the Streatham rapper who gained popularity with his incredible 2015 SBTV Warm Up Session, and who has gone on to make songs with AJ Tracey and Drake. The crowd absolutely loved it, more than they loved Tracey’s set.

Unfortunately, AJ Tracey… was ultimately overshadowed by nearly everyone else who took to the stage that night.

Tracey did not deliver the punchy flow and energy that Dave and Ets (who was more than just your average hype man) managed to do. Donning a black Trapstar hoodie, Tracey was quite rigid throughout the show. He peaked with a freestyle over Skepta’s universal rave starter ‘I Spy’, which included the bar, ‘my eyebrows meet in the middle so like Skepta nobody better chat to me’. ‘Naila’ really got people going (‘spinning, spinning!’) and a revamping of ‘Leave Me Alone’ over the beat of Whippin Excursion was another highlight. But ‘Pasta’ fell flat and Tracey didn’t even finish rapping ‘Buster Cannon’, his last song. He just strolled off stage with his crew while the instrumental kept going. I could feel the crowd’s disappointment and confusion after Tracey ended his set after only 45 minutes. His entrance onstage had been strangely underwhelming after an unceremonious transition between DJs and the crowd took a while to get moving. Dave’s entrance onstage outshone Tracey’s by a mile. I hate to say it but it was Dave who really made the gig. Even though he only performed his part of ‘Thiago Silva’, he stayed on stage and did all the jumping around that Tracey seemed to forget to do.

Of the four support acts, three were homegrown Birmingham grime rappers, who initially got the worst of the crowd’s disinterest. Tana attempted a call-and-response which completely flopped while K2 literally told the audience ‘you lot need to wake up’. But after a few collaborative songs, and Jaykae’s appearance, Brummie pride kicked in, and the crowd went crazy for the songs they did and didn’t know. As a (Greater) Londoner, I didn’t really get into it but it was great to see such energy. Unfortunately, AJ Tracey struggled to incite the same level of excitement and was ultimately overshadowed by nearly everyone else who took to the stage that night.

When I woke up the next morning it took me a while to remember that I had been to a gig the night before. He lacked the stage presence but Tracey still spit bars at lightning speed and performed great songs. On Sunday, I saw a new artist who wasn’t quite comfortable in his surroundings but has the potential to sell out larger, better shows in the future. His visually exciting music videos and remixes of American tracks tell me that Tracey is no ordinary rapper. I just hope his future shows reflect this.

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