AJ Tracey live at Reading Festival 2021: a slam-dunk festival comeback

August Bank Holiday is AJ Tracey’s time of year. Although his hometown borough of Ladbroke Grove is at the centre of carnival celebrations in West London – albeit cancelled this year – he’s now part of the furniture at Reading Festival. He’s crept up the line-up in its last two edition; after his previous 2019 set cementing his legend as the song that shouts out his home turf went supernova. He also recently found time to jump on Gorillaz’ new EP, ‘Meanwhile’, released yesterday. It seems the boy can’t miss.

His return to Richfield Avenue has taken on an added significance. Earlier this week, he cancelled his ‘Flu Game’ UK arena tour, saying that he was unable to execute the vision he originally had for the show due to “uncertainty with the pandemic”. His sets this weekend on the Main Stage East will likely be one of the only performances before a new “live experience” arrives next year.

AJ Tracey
Credit: Emma Viola Lilja

You sense that he realises that in his sub-headline set before Stormzy. This is now the statement performance of the ‘Flu Game’ campaign. It’s quite the spectacle. Accompanied by a gigantic basketball hoop that even you could make a shot in, dancing cheerleaders and bespoke video animations, AJ wants to show everyone how dedicated he is to his vision. The crowd respects that – attentive, lively and dazzled by his ambition.

Older cuts like ‘Pasta’ and ‘Psych Out’ – his arena-baiting lighter-in-the-air moment – showcase the bag of tricks he can now pull from; When the entire concept coalesces on ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Little More Love’, he cements his place as an all-star of British hip-hop, pop and rock all at once.

But even Michael Jordan – whose infamous 1997 game inspired his hoop-heavy second album – needed side-kick Scottie Pippen (a reliable and steadfast partner to elevate his game). AJ has his pal Aitch. The Manchester rap tyke gallops on stage for ‘Rain’, with the pair trading bars at lightning pace and radiating glee as they egg each other on. They’re heroes in their own right, but there’s a future as a dynamic duo here should they pursue it.

AJ brings it all back home with final song, ‘Ladbroke Grove’, which sounds bigger, somehow, than it did two years ago. Perhaps the cover of night offers the lights-out naughtiness that usually only a small club can offer – it is a garage banger, after all. Or perhaps it’s because after the past 18 months that these punters have had, it’s a chance for AJ to be live and direct as he becomes king of the Bank Holiday weekend.

Check back at NME all weekend for more reviews, news, interviews, photos and more from Reading & Leeds 2021.