Lil Tjay’s Harmonized Pain Elevates His Streaming Success
Show & Prove
Words: Georgette Cline
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
When the self-proclaimed “Prince of New York” pulls up to the city’s famed Hot 97 radio station in a silver Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, his arrival turns into hip-hop’s own version of King Jaffe Joffer’s ingress in Queens to surprise Prince Akeem in the classic 1988 romantic comedy film Coming to America. Only this scene plays out with 18-year-old Bronx rapper Lil Tjay exiting the vehicle and stepping onto the Manhattan street, dressed in a black “F.N” promo T-shirt, a Gucci scarf and teal and orange Puma sneakers, with a seven-man entourage surrounding him. The sound of his debut album, True 2 Myself, blasts from the vehicle’s speakers.
Tjay is tardy to the party on this bleak October afternoon as he heads upstairs to Hot 97’s seventh floor to meet with radio personalities DJ Enuff and Megan Ryte for the station’s midday show, New at 2. Despite settling into a chair 10 minutes after 2 p.m., Megan welcomes the rap newcomer with pleasantries and Enuff compliments Tjay on the lyrical flow showcased on his Vznare-produced, Billboard Hot 100 hit “F.N,” which peaked at No. 56 on the chart. “The flow crazy!” he affirms.
It might be unexpected for Enuff—an industry vet who toured alongside The Notorious B.I.G. as his DJ in the 1990s—to praise one of New York’s most promising young acts in a time when many of hip-hop’s elder statesmen come down hard on hip-hop’s new wave. “Lil Tjay is making music and he’s streaming, right?” says Enuff. “But he’s still making melodic music and it’s lyrical enough where even the old heads fuck with it. And I thought that was important, especially ’cause I’m a old head.” In the eternal words of Kanye West: Listen to the kids, bro.
Born Tione Jayden Merritt, Lil Tjay hails from 183rd Street and Ryer Avenue, a Bronx block lined with a bodega, barbershop, Chinese food joint and Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As he illustrates on his guitar-driven track “No Escape”—the coming-of-age lyrical tour de force on True 2 Myself—Tjay knew he was destined for stardom at an early age: “Back when I was 5 years old, I knew that I was gon’ be great/I found my gift for music back around the age of 8.” The sounds of Michael Jackson, Usher and Chris Brown permeated his family’s crib and ultimately inspired his own singing around the house. The music videos he saw on TV helped paint the big picture. “I seen people turning up lit and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” recalls Tjay, the eldest of three siblings: two sisters, 6 and 13, and a brother, 10. At 7, Tjay was holed up in his room writing rhymes with his mom. “I’ll write mines and she’ll write hers at the same time,” he adds. “We write some together.” Practice back then made perfect for later on.
Life changed six years later, when the self-described “block baby” began catching cases for the dirt he was doing in the streets at 13—selling weed and dirty Sprite. Incarceration and dropping out of school in the ninth grade followed. “It was terrible,” he admits while munching on chips inside of a Hot 97 studio. “I always wanted more and I had no way of getting it. I couldn’t get a job, so it’s like, how am I gonna get what I see, what I want, the sneakers I want, the clothes I want.” In 2016, a year-long stint in a Queens juvenile detention center for robbery led him to change his ways. “I think it was the fact that I had songs written down that I really believed with all my heart had potential to blow, so I was like, nah, this gotta work.”
One of those tracks was the T.Y.B. ode “Resume,” which he wrote in juvie and released on SoundCloud in 2017—it currently sits at over 29 million streams on the platform. The song, which is the first piece of music he recorded in a studio, landed on the radar of Maria Arangio, Associate Director of A&R at Columbia Records, the label that signed Tjay in 2018. “I noticed that he had incredible melodies in his songs and then like, a really strong hook,” she shares. “And what Tjay’s great at is song structure. We saw that across each one of his records. And every song he put out was better than the last. So, we were just like, ‘Wow, he’s incredibly talented. We need him at Columbia.’ From there, we met and he has a star personality, so it didn’t take long for us to notice his potential.” To celebrate signing the dotted line, Tjay flexed by taking his friends shopping at a mall in New Jersey.
Harmonized pain (the label Tjay puts on his music because “everything all ain’t just sweet”), raw subject matter, staunch songwriting skills, massive streaming numbers (he’s got 10 million monthly subscribers on Spotify) and a boyish charm have all played a part in his success thus far. With three projects (2018’s No Comparison; 2019’s F.N and True 2 Myself, the latter of which landed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in October), three gold records (“F.N,” “Brothers” and “Ruthless” featuring Jay Critch) and a double-platinum accolade for his featured verse on labelmate Polo G’s hit song “Pop Out,” Tjay has garnered early hip-hop fame as a result of innate talent and staying true to himself. “He keeps everything real,” says Clayton Barmore, Tjay’s manager alongside partner Deon Douglas. “He don’t really sugarcoat a lot of things. He’s just gonna be himself no matter what.”
Filters aren’t really Tjay’s thing. Case in point: his reaction to the incessant A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie comparisons. Yes, they’re both from The Bronx and deliver melodic bangers, but Tjay is navigating his own victory lap. “I don’t care,” conveys Tjay, who cites Mindless Behavior and Lil Twist as his early childhood musical inspirations along with Drake and Meek Mill as later influences. “I don’t feel like it’s anywhere near true. We two different people, and if people wanna say that, then [that] don’t matter to me.” What does matter is what’s next on Lil Tjay’s agenda: expanding his career by delving into acting and helping other upcoming artists. “I want everybody to get a piece of this,” he expresses. “I wish somebody could’ve did that for me.”
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