Lil Tjay sucks his teeth in dissatisfaction. Sitting on a couch at Sony’s Manhattan office, he’s either shy or aggressively uninterested in talking. When he’s asked about the rappers who shaped his style, a slight clanking of his chain is the only noise in the awkward silence that ensues.
“A lot of older influences,” he answers, finally. “Like Drake, Meek.”
Drake and Meek Mill are both in their early thirties. Drake and Meek are old?
Tjay clarifies that he’s merely talking about people outside of his generation. Given that rap generations in the streaming era cycle in and out about every 18 months, conservatively, that helps explain. Still, the realization of how young Tjay really is lingers. He shields his mouth, squirms and answers in short, clipped sentences, just like any teenager — albeit one in crystal-crusted Gucci sneakers.
Tione Merritt is 17, and his rise over the last year has been fueled by pure youth and unfiltered instinct. To him, Drake and Meek Mill are elder statesmen, the way those rappers looked at Jay-Z or Biggie when they were growing up. If you’re over 25, Lil Tjay probably thinks you’re old, too.
The rapper grew up in the South Bronx and describes his neighborhood as “diverse,” evidenced by his knack for dipping in and out of Spanish — a language he can’t fluently speak, but one he picked up from friends. On record, his voice is a teenaged chirp, moving in and out of half-sung verses and hooks smoothed by Auto-Tune. Stylistically, he’s an offshoot of another Bronx native, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, who only broke into the popular consciousness in 2016 (and at 23 is barely out of his teens himself). His success is emblematic of how fast rap moves now, with a dramatically increased rate of influence between young artists. But where A Boogie often plays the role of the scorned lover in his music, Tjay operates in a less defined emotional space.
Instead of a unifying vision, Tjay traverses a range of melodic styles. On a song like “None of Your Love,” he interpolates Justin Bieber’s 2010 hit “Baby.” Asked how this came about, he shrugs: He wanted to “transition into singing,” so he entered the studio and did just that.
“Brothers,” his most successful song, is dour pop. Through a joyous Auto-Tuned gargle, Tjay raps about death, dejection and incarceration. The juxtaposition of the ebullient delivery with the song’s grave subject matter is striking.
“I feel like a lot of times when stuff is on my mind, I really don’t show it,” he says. “I know how to hide my emotions. I can say what’s going on and not make you want to feel down. A lot of time I like to sing music that people can relate to, but not necessarily put them in a depressed mood. In ‘Brothers’ I’m saying, ‘Bodies drop all the time, I don’t feel nothing.’ Basically I’m trying to say I’m bringing the struggle into a more of joyful, melodic sound.”
During the pre-chorus, he sings, “I got 99 problems like Jay-Z/Caught a felony, judge tried to slave me.” According to the Bronx rapper, he was locked up for a “little over a year” on a robbery charge; while imprisoned, he practiced the fundamentals for his rapping career.
“It was not fun,” he says. “It’s not nothing that I would want to do again, but I learned a lot from it. I feel like if I wasn’t to go to jail, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am — I wouldn’t. Cause I wouldn’t have sat down and wrote those songs and I never would’ve been able to focus on what I want to accomplish. So it’s like it was actually a good thing for me. It made me open my eyes and stuff like that.”
The first song he recorded when he got out was “Resume.” Lyrically, the song is a crude screed against “average” women; it showed an inkling of Tjay’s sense of songcraft, and was recorded the first time he was in a studio. When he released the song on SoundCloud, Tjay barely had a social media presence. The only platform he used was Facebook. By his estimate, on the second day of its release the song had 5,000 listens. A year later, the song is at 13.7 million streams on SoundCloud and over 8.5 million views on YouTube.
“I just posted the link and I just made sure all my friends posted it,” he recalls. “Everybody heard the song before it dropped and they was like, ‘Yo, you gotta drop this.’ And then I just dropped it. Everybody I knew posted it at one time, and then just I guess other people from different places started reposting it and they actually listened to it and then it started to go crazy.”
It’s hard to fathom how a kid with a non-existent social footprint engendered so much buzz, so quickly. He is now a regular staple on SoundCloud’s Top 50 chart, a growing bastion for major-label-backed artists. Tjay is coy regarding his pre-fame popularity, especially in his neighborhood — “Nah, I was regular. I was regular. Some people knew me, some people didn’t.” He’s equally elusive about his deal with Columbia Records, even as he sits under their roof for our conversation. On “Leaked,” he raps “Lowkey ’cause the industry I’m not the old me,” which is a little humorous, considering his career is still in its fledgling stages.
As far as he’s concerned, there isn’t an overarching plan for his first album. In fairness, why should there be? Tjay has made it this far dropping one-off singles and waiting for the millions of streams to roll in. He’s direct about his methods: “If I don’t feel like it’s a hit then I don’t feel like dropping it.” Nevertheless, the young rapper has already witnessed what a bubbling rap career can do for the people around him.
“When I had came out of jail I seen a lot of my friends go into jail, stuff like that,” he says. “Once I realized music was working, I was getting money off of shows and I figured that I could find success through music. I realized it’s no reason to just be doing just on the block, doing illegal stuff. I see a lot of motivation that come from [that] — a lot of people look at me like, ‘Damn, it’s a way out.'”