In just two years, Lil Tjay went from spending his days in a youth detention center to becoming one of the biggest breakout rappers of 2019.
Tione Dalyan Merritt was born six months before 9/11, on April 30, 2001, in the South Bronx, New York. Tjay spent his early teenage years getting into fights and pulling off petty robberies, which landed him in a youth detention center in 2016, when he was 15. After returning home in late 2017, he started releasing music on SoundCloud. Over the next year, he started gaining momentum, as singles “Resume,” “Brothers,” “Leaked,” and “None of Your Love” racked up millions of plays.
This summer, with label backing from Columbia Records and a rapidly growing following of young fans, Tjay catapulted to stardom on the back of his scene-stealing guest appearance on Polo G’s hit single, “Pop Out,” which peaked inside the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Fresh off high-profile features alongside artists like French Montana (“Slide”) and Pop Smoke (“War”), Tjay appears ready to make another leap with his new album, True 2 Myself. To celebrate its release, here are ten things you need to know about Lil Tjay.
Lil Tjay started writing raps while serving a one year sentence in juvenile detention
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 told Rolling Stone. “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.”
His first viral hit was “Resume”
After spending a year in juvenile detention, Tjay was granted his freedom in late 2017. When he got out, he dropped “Resume,” which 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. Soon after, it became a viral hit, with an accompanying homemade visual that featured Tjay smoking and hanging out in a small, plain, white-walled apartment.
During an interview with Rolling Stone last January, Tjay explained how the track became an overnight success story. “I just posted the link and I just made sure all my friends posted it,” he recalled. “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.”
He started taking a rap career seriously in 2018
After the positive response of “Resume”—which had amassed 13.7 million streams on SoundCloud and over 8.5 million views on YouTube within a year of its release—Tjay decided to avoid the block and instead hunker down with a notebook and pen. “I had to dedicate myself, because if this didn’t work, I didn’t know what would be next,” he says. Over the course of 2018, Tjay raised his profile in the mainstream with viral hits like “Brothers,” “Goat,” and “None of Your Love,” before dropping his EP, No Comparison, last December.
He scored his first top 20 hit on Polo G’s “Pop Out”
After signing with Columbia Records last January, Tjay joined forces with the label’s other rising star, Polo G, on the Chicago rapper’s debut single, “Pop Out.” Released on January 13, their collaboration quickly became a hit. According to Genius, the song averaged 1,564 daily page views in January before rising to 1,885 average daily page views in February. Then, in April, “Pop Out” debuted at No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. Two months later, the single cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart on June 15, before peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100 the following week.
He credits Michael Jackson, Usher, R. Kelly, and Justin Bieber with influencing his melodic style
Despite hailing from the same borough as French Montana, Cardi B, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, the influences that Tjay names aren’t rappers; they’re pop and R&B singers like Usher, Michael Jackson, and Justin Bieber. During an interview with Pitchfork last January, when asked if Bieber inspired his melodic style of rapping, Tjay responded, “It might’ve been a combination of Bieber and the old R&B my mom would play, like MJ, R. Kelly, and Usher. I would sing them all the time, and that’s when I knew my voice was special.”
He is interested in making straight-ahead R&B songs
While discussing his melodic rapping style during an interview with Ebro Darden, Tjay was asked if he plans on crafting straight-ahead R&B songs. According to the Bronx rapper, he’s already recorded a few love joints, including one that leans heavily toward the R&B side of things, and a few others that are “for the girls.”
He wants to sample Justin Bieber’s “One Less Lonely Girl”
After sampling Justin Bieber’s hit single, “Baby,” on “None of Your Love,” Tjay told Pitchfork that people on Facebook started calling him the Bronx Justin Bieber. He also hinted at potentially recording more Bieber-inspired songs in the future. “That sample is crazy, but what I really want to sample next is that “One Less Lonely Girl.”
From an early age, he knew he would be famous
Tjay insists that his newfound fame was all part of his master plan. “I knew I wanted to make music since I was young. I used to just watch Justin Bieber videos and be like, ‘Damn, this is going to be me,’” he told Pitchfork. “I never thought about how I was going to get there, but I knew it would happen.”
Speaking with XXL in August, he spoke on the subject with even more confidence: “My dream job growing up was always to be an artist. It wasn’t even that I would be a rapper or singer; I just knew I would be a public figure. I always imagined it would happen, and have never really doubted it.”
He is already focused on longevity
Unlike many of his peers, who move from video to video, song to song, with daft quickness, Tjay is already thinking about his legacy. “I won’t drop an album until it’s perfect,” he says. “A lot of albums got two or three singles but the rest is caca. I want every song on it to be a hit.” Tjay adds, “My whole life I wanted something more—I didn’t get here just to be broke at 28. I have plans: vocal lessons, dance lessons, on some Usher shit.”
Fame has changed his relationships
“My situation is unique, and if a girl my age got more than me she has probably had it her whole life,” he told Pitchfork. “[Since] we’re not the same, that’s not what I’m looking for. I need someone like me, but not really. Because I been through things. I got feelings for somebody right now, though, a regular girl from the Bronx. She from the block actually, no celebrity, not rich.”
When asked why he can’t commit to his love interest, Tjay explained how his newfound fame has changed the way he looks at relationships. “Because it didn’t start till after [I got popular]. Like bro, we didn’t have this before, and there’s something in the back of my mind that tells me that. But she’s easy to talk to about regular shit. I make sure she doing her homework, she gonna graduate soon. I should’ve been about to graduate too, but she keeps me on my grind.”