oNOT FASTDECEMBER evening in a lounge at Westlake Studios in West Hollywood,lil tjayand his entourage of five watch a boxing match as they plan their next move for the night. Amid plush armchairs, two-seater sofas and a huge television, his guard, also a boxer, extols the discipline and confidence needed to get into the ring. One of Tjay's managers, Deon Douglas, comments: "They couldn't pay me to punch me in the face." They all laugh and Tjay points out that boxing is about hitting, not getting hit. "You have to go into the fight thinking you're going to win," he says. It is a reality with which he is familiar.
At just 21 years old, Lil Tjay has already racked up 14 platinum singles. His first professional studio session when he was 16 produced "Resume," a catchy tune that set New York City on fire and, along with a host of other singles he uploaded to SoundCloud, resulted in a deal with Columbia Lead Records. in 2018. Preparing his as-yet-untitled third album to be released later this year, Tjay has gone from his teenage years in and out of juvenile prisons to being one of New York's biggest rap stars. , as expert in singing ballads as Justin Bieber. sampling "None of Your Love" as well as rough party singles like "War" featuring the late Pop Smoke.
Tjay had traveled to Westlake from another studio, where he recorded his verses for Ice Spice's "Gangsta Boo," a Bronx-style love story that was released on his EP.As..?in January. I'm one of the first to hear the song, which is a sample of the P. Diddy single "I Need a Girl Pt." 2." Tjay plays the track repeatedly from his phone, contemplating adjusting a few bars. The next night, at Tjay's show at the Novo, he excitedly tells his guest, Diddy's son King Combs, about the song Green Room.
His more introspective work speaks to a generation of young people navigating the busy streets, as his friend and close collaborator Polo G acknowledges. "I'll fuck every rapper I've thrown in the trenches," Polo tells me the next day. “Music like his got me through some things in its early stages [while] I was just vibrating and going through the motions of being myself. I always fuck with my brother."
One of Polo's Lil Tjay favorite songs is 2018's "Brothers," in which the Bronx MC sings, "Big bag don't mean all right/I've got 99 problems like Jay-Z." he would be dealing with four years later. Last June, Tjay was shot dead in an apparent robbery just hours before he was due to fly to Paris Fashion Week. The story may even have ended there, one of a growing number of artists who have been killed at gunpoint. Fortunately, Tjay wasn't one of them.
"I'm super charged right now," he tells me. “I just took seven shots. I don't like tough guy shit or angel shit. I feel like a child prodigy. I feel like my purpose is bigger than I know. I'm just trying to figure out what life has in store for me. I know I'm destined to win. I am destined to be great. All I did was profit from setbacks. I just had a major setback. I feel like it charged me because there is more to overcome.
More challenges would follow. About five weeks after we spoke, he and four other people were arrested on second-degree weapons charges while filming a Gangsta Boo video in the Bronx. NYPD reportedly discovered his SUV parked in a no-parking zone and later found four weapons after searching the vehicle. He has since posted bail and been released. Tjay's team did not comment on the arrest.
Born Merritt, Tjay grew up with his mother and three younger brothers at 183rd Street and Ryer Avenue in the Fordham area of the Bronx. (Tjay says that he never knew his father and that he doesn't really want to find him.) He was a hard-working kid who balanced his desire to excel in elementary school with a mischievous streak that, he says, sometimes made him the "bad boy." "A boy in my class did it." From a very young age he was hooked on the idea of the music star, watching artists like Lil Wayne and Bieber, and stating that he would one day be as famous as them. He remembers writing “little six-bar rhymes” with his aunt in first grade.
A few years later, in fourth grade, she sang well enough to be in a school choir, but during rehearsals, she recalls, "I was still cold. I couldn't sing in front of people." Music was her dream, But he was nervous to reveal it."I was almost embarrassed to say that I wanted to do this," he says.
"Growing up in the Bronx wasn't too much for me and my special circle of friends," she recalls. "We just chilled out, chilled out, got high. We didn't really get off the block." Eventually, the monotony of this routine led to serious problems. Tjay says his first exposure to the law was in "sixth or seventh grade" when cops they came to his school with a warrant and locked him up for two days. His mother's anguish sparked regret "deeper than any punishment." But even after this incident, he kept getting into trouble in the neighborhood.
"In my heart I felt that I wanted to be good," he says. "And if I say right, the things I did to get locked up weren't bad, I just did things I shouldn't do, I was persistent and I wanted an adrenaline rush. I used to say to myself, 'Hey, you've got to stop.' But it was almost an addiction to my lifestyle.” That thirst for adrenaline shaped his adolescence.As he grew older, he began to lose people around him, like his girlfriend Esmerlyn "Smelly" Toribio, whom Tjay has referenced throughout his catalogue; In August 2016, Toribio was stabbed to death during a botched motorcycle sale. "I was literally with him," recalls Tjay. "Bro just got stabbed. But I don't think he died. The cops on the scene [were] like, 'Who did it?' ' And I told them I just arrived [on the scene].” The cops asked again, and he repeated the same thing, then, Tjay recalls, "They said: Tell us who did it, or we'll let him die" (the NYPD did not respond to a request for comment).
The cold of the streets had become the normal climate of TYay. "He was too low on the road and didn't know what to do," TJay recalls of that moment in his life. “I kept going to jail and watching people die around me. I see people who understand long sentences. I tried to find out. He was lost.” TJay tells me he lost more than 20 people on the streets. By the time Tjay was 15, his juvenile delinquency had resulted in a one-year sentence for robbery.
"I really put everything into the music," he recalls. “I felt like that was my jackpot. If anything could happen in life, it would be this." She started writing rhymes non-stop. When others at the facility started asking him to rap, he knew he had something. "We're going to sit at the dinner table and I'm going to say, 'Hey, give me a beat and I'll rap some of my songs,'" he recalls. "Everyone was like, 'Bro, you're going to explode.'" When he got out of prison, he had a notebook full of rhymes.
Tjay was released from a juvenile detention center on parole in September 2017. The parole agreement contained a strict provision that any violation of the law could result in three to five years in prison. He had to be careful, but he was willing. "I felt like a new person," he says. "I still had a little spark inside of me, but I wanted so much better for myself." That fall, he focused on two things: staying in school and recording music. In December of that year, he uploaded "Resume" to SoundCloud, a track that his prison friends used to want him to sing.
Throughout a minimalist piano-driven production, Tjay boasted of his romantic conquests with a haunting tune, pairing "Resume" with a video in which he and his friends exude youthful vigour; With the first hint of him she had found his formula. Over time, he steadily grew enthusiastic about songs like "Ride for You" and "Brothers." After one incident, when a crowd was waiting for him outside his probation office, even his initially skeptical probation officer realized he was on his way.
After several meetings with other labels, Tjay signed with Columbia Records in June 2018. His lifelong wish came true, and he celebrated by taking $20,000 of his down payment and squandering it on him and all his friends in Jordans. "At the time he couldn't even spend the $20,000 because he didn't know what to buy," Tjay recalls. But he would soon learn and become a teenage millionaire with New York as his playground. "I was 17 years old when they first set me on fire. I used to stay in town all day," he says. “I would be away, I would get a hotel, I would have all the people in the hotel, I would get a new hotel every day. Smoking fees and all this for almost a year straight.”
A year after signing with Columbia, Tjay dropped his debut,true 2 Myself,which opened at number five in thebillboard200. Fueled by high-performance singles like "Brothers," "Leaked," "FN," and "Hold On," the 15-track project went platinum. He propelled Tjay from national hero to rising star. “Back then I didn't know anything about album units or anything like that. He was learning as he walked,” he recalls. He found himself in a difficult situation faced by many young artists in an industry that rarely stops to help them deal with their new stature. "I just went in without any guidance," he says. "Management told me, 'Yo, you shouldn't be doing this,'" but it wasn't anyone he felt he needed to listen to. And then there was no one I understood. I can understand what you're saying, but I may not understand the importance of 'You have to move like this because adults move like that' .”
STILL, TJAY WAS on top of the world. He continued with his debut with 2021Definitely 2 winsa critically acclaimed release that debuted at number five on the charts. And Tjay had plans to take it even better for her then-titled third album.I'm not in the mood.Last summer, in the middle of recording the album, she took a break to go to Paris Fashion Week and then London for a couple of shows (for a seven-figure pay). The flight to Paris was booked for June 22 at 6 am, but Tjay never made it. He was shot dead seven times in a botched robbery that morning.
It's still an open case, so Tjay can't go into details, but this has been reported: Just after midnight on June 22, Tjay, his cousin Antoine "Bubba Stackz" Boyd, and their friend Jeffrey Valdez were at a red dodge. Durango in the parking lot of a Chipotle in a strip mall in Edgewater, New Jersey. An affidavit says one of the victims told police 27-year-old Mohamed Konate approached his car, demanded his jewelry and then began firing a gun. Tjay was shot in the neck, once in the arm and five times in the torso, including a bullet just inches from his heart.
"I don't even know if he knew it was seven times," he muses solemnly in the studio. “When that shit hits you, it's different. When it's over and over again it's like, me! I'm not going to lie, everyone who was there and saw me, it definitely looked like it was over.” Tjay says he was consumed. out of anger immediately after the shooting.
"I was angry," he emphasizes. "Not sad, not scared. I was mad like, 'Hey, is it over so soon? I didn't just kill myself... did I just let someone do that to me? I felt like I screwed up, that I could have moved smarter." .
Tjay wants the new album to show the resilience of her music: "A vibe that's like a humble way of saying, 'You can't stop me.'"
Tjay passed out while waiting for the ambulance and was airlifted to Hackensack University Medical Center about two hours later, where he was in a coma for five days. When he finally woke up, he thought he had only slept for a few hours. "The lady from the hospital came up to me and said, 'Hey, you didn't look so good the other day, dude,'" he says. "I'm like, 'The other day? What do you mean the other day?'"
For several days, the sensation returned to his body and he was able to communicate by writing on paper. "I remember one of the first things I wrote was 'Bubba,' that's my cousin," she says. "I wrote his name and tried to put a question mark. [And they told me] 'Bubba got shot. He's good. He came out the next day.' Then the next thing I said was, 'How many?' Then they looked at me like, 'How many, what? How many times have you been shot?' They said, 'Seven,' and I said, 'What?' I started thinking, 'Am I going to die?'"
With a bullet to her throat, she initially ignored the doctor's requests to speak, fearing that speaking would hurt or cause more harm, but her mother inspired her first words. "When my mom showed up, she said, 'Oh, they took the tube out. You look better today. What's wrong? How are you?' I said, 'Hey mom.' She was like, 'Oh, are you talking?'" she recalls warmly.
Tjay had five wounds to his torso that had ravaged his insides and, as an asthmatic, he had a worse lung condition than the average person. Eventually, his fever reached fatal levels and he required emergency treatment. "[The doctors say], 'Hey, you're going to have a stroke,'" he recalls. "I couldn't move. It was unbelievably cold in the blankets. Thirty ice packs and I can't move. I'm already anemic. I was so cold when my temperature was so high." Doctors told him they were preparing for emergency surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his throat, but he did not want to be put back under anesthesia because "I was afraid I would have to leave." back to sleep." At her command, they put anesthesia on her neck and removed the bullet with a scalpel. "I could feel the bullet, too," he says. "She touches my neck, and I could feel a bullet, and I said, 'Hey, that's crazy.' All I think is, 'What? I have a story to tell.'"
After Tjay's condition stabilized, he focused on telling this story. Hip-hop dignitaries like 50 Cent and Diddy gave him an encouraging call. Tjay says 50 called him from a plane and said, "Every artist needs pain or something to feed on. Uh, get this shit off your back. You've got length for waist. You're getting bigger than ever." 50 speaks from experience.The industry declared him dead after making nine recordings in 2000, but he channeled his grief into music that resonates with him more than 20 years later.
Tjay tried the same thing with "Beat the Odds," a song she partially recorded at the hospital. (“I needed to hear myself,” he says. “I wanted to be myself real fast.”) He already had the song featuring Polo G, but the two agreed that his state of mind had a lot to do with the Tjay situation. . , so Tjay rewrote and re-recorded one verse. "Every line he had to say one after the other just blew my mind," he recalls. “I could only say a few words and I was breathless at that moment. I was still draining blood from my lungs." But he finished the song and paired it with a video that was filmed in his hospital room.
After three weeks in the hospital, Tjay was released with an armored truck, four security escorts and a new life. He had thought a lot during his hospital stay, especially during the times when he couldn't speak. "I was launched into heaven at 2:22 a.m. and it was June 22, 2022," he says. "When I looked up those numbers, it was like, 'God is giving you a chance to change.'" Tjay says he's not religious, but his survival and quick recovery validated his belief in a higher power. "Before that, I asked God," he says. "I don't do anymore. I know God is real, a billion percent."
"I'm traumatized, but I try not to let my everyday life get ruined," says Lil Tjay. "I'm just trying to believe that I was in a unique situation."
THE DAY AFTER Our talk at Westlake Studios, Novo Los Angeles, is packed for the first stop on Tjay's aptly named I'm Back Tour, her first headlining set since filming. The performance opens with fake doctors trying to revive an actor playing the rapper in a hospital bed. Towards the end of the skit, Tjay's DJ begs the crowd to chant, "Wake up, Tjay!" - What do you do. Finally, the medics push the bed off the stage I'm on, and the actor playing Tjay quickly jumps out.
Before the show, the dressing room is packed with Tjay's friends: Polo G, a surprise performer of the night, sits in the corner next to him. Another surprise guest, King Combs, sits across from Tjay. Everyone is there for him and this is not a routine performance. After his shock with death in June, there was a sobering possibility that none of this would happen.
After the show, Tjay has a meet and greet session where fans can take photos. Many of the teens are so nervous that they barely speak to her, sit down, and quickly wave their hands up for future Instagram posts. He ends up autographing a slew of items: a giant wrapped Spotify poster, a Grizzlies jersey, and a pair of Air Force Ones. After the shoot, a man in a colorful jacket gives him an elevator pitch about filming content. video for your channel. Tjay complies, then the man pulls out a notebook and asks a quick, meandering question about his sanity and healing from his gunshot. I can see Tjay's face trying to process the trick question. Instead of being rude, he flashes his trademark smile and gives the best answer possible: "I'm different."
In September, Tjay released the ferocious "Faceshot," in which he freestyled "Many Men" from Over 50 and held his own with bars like "Think 'cause I sing that I won't pack your ass." But he's not trying to recreate the '50s penchant for rap meat. "I regret arguing with someone online," Tjay says of his past viral missteps. "All the arguments online and stuff like that...a lot of it is just ego."
He now considers himself a Los Angeles resident, has lived in Calabasas for the past two years, and is conflicted about being back East. "I know that New York is dangerous," she says. "It's probably not the safest place for me, but New York is my home." Therein lies the dilemma for young rappers across the country, who love her hometown even if they don't always love her back.
But while he was working on his next album, he was also on the mend. At the end of October she could not record without pain and still has no feeling in the right side of her torso; The doctors say that she should return in another "year". The mental toll of being shot is also something she struggles with. "I try not to move like I'm traumatized," he says. “I try not to let my everyday life get ruined. I'm just trying to be normal and I'm just thinking that I was in a unique situation.” Despite this, she changed his routine and isolated people who weren't there for him during his hospitalization.
Since June, Tjay has been focused on reworking his third album, which he says is coming "soon" but doesn't give many other details. He played me four songs he had written for the album in Westlake: a no-trap, steamy bar party we talked about as a possible intro or ending, a sultry duet with Summer Walker in preparation for the single release before filming was a collaboration with DaBaby, where the two bars are swapped, and an ambitious, electronically-tinged banger that sounds fit for stadium speakers. Tjay's manager, Deon Douglas, poked his head into the studio room to tell Tjay to play the last song, probably thinking of his crossover potential. The whole time Tjay played the songs for me, he'd recite them giddily as he jumped up and down like in his de Novo performance, imagining perhaps future performances.
It says the album has no title.Not in the moodand he wants the new title to reflect the rugged tone of his latest music. "Very close, like [Drakes]Be alert,He says. "A vibe that's like a humble way of saying, 'You can't stop me.'"