TRUE TO MYSELF: LIL TJAY
INTERVIEW & WORDS: TOM EVEREST
Lil Tjay, captivated by his phone in the usual way any 18-year-old would be in the unknown surroundings of Sony’s West London office, tuts in dissatisfaction as he enters the room to be interviewed. In our couple of scheduled hours with Lil Tjay – real name Tione Merritt – we are starting to understand a little bit more about him. Or at least try to. Throughout the day, he flits between two contrasting and overriding emotions. He’s either completely uninterested in instigating conversation and answering questions or the exact opposite; inquisitive, polite and unfiltered. The first few questions of the interview, he doesn’t even have an answer for. The sound of his straw popping into a carton of orange juice is the only noise which breaches the silences. But, when he’s asked about his drive – about why he does what he does – then his phone is no longer the most important thing in the room. He bites back.
“I never had no first time moment,” he begins. “I just knew, I always knew, this is what I wanted to do. I’ve always had this desire to do this. I’ve always had this desire to be a superstar. So, literally, I just said that I’m going to make this happen.”
There’s an element of shyness which prevents him from articulating himself in the way he feels he should. He rarely makes eye-contact, he keeps his answers short – with enough consideration to ensure you move onto the next one – and delivers them with a real direction. You forget, despite his mainstream success and steep upward trajectory that he’s only just turned 18. He’s just a teenager. Just like any 18-year-old, he’s constantly learning; trying to figure out the kind of person he wants to be. But, despite that, he always seems to be in control. Even when he’s asked what has been the craziest moment of his come-up, he responds without a seconds thought. “Honestly, there’s new moments all the time,” he explains. “I can’t even claim there to be one highlight, it’s everyday something new which gives me life. Coming to London was a moment.”
His inexperience comes into focus again. But, this time, I realise that it’s his youthfulness which makes him so special. The ‘crazy moments’ he’s referring to have all come from his overwhelming desire to be an artist. His rise over the last two years – from his very first gig in Middletown, New York, where he had ‘around 30 people there’ – to the present day has been fuelled by pure instinct. His huge desire to be the best version of himself. “I always knew what I was doing was going to bigger than this,” he chimes, as he explains his mindset starting out. “I knew the journey was only just beginning then. It’s weird, because I’ve never felt like I’m successful or never will until I’m the most successful.”
When spending time with Lil Tjay, the one thing you can’t ignore is his intellect. He’s incredibly astute. He is aware of every little affliction or change in the world around him. He just doesn’t always show that he’s so in tune. Throughout the interview he remains on his phone, but is polite enough to personally thank everyone when the day is done. He also acknowledges that, despite his success, despite his desire to be the best, he doesn’t know it all. “I’m not even going to lie man, it’s hard to give you the right answers.” But, he’s always plotting his next move; he’s always one step ahead. It’s been that way forever.
“I’ve always had this desire to be a superstar.”
Back in 2016, while he was serving time in a juvenile detention centre for robbery, he planned out his future success, filling two books with handwritten verses. It was at that moment when he really started to put the wheels into motion to be the ‘Prince of New York’ and become a fully fledged musician. He hasn’t stopped since. His first hit ‘Resume’ welcomed in a run of singles which comfortable checked over 10 million streams each. Then, joining forces with Polo G, he clocked his first platinum plaque with ‘Pop Out.’ before linking with French Montana on ‘Slide’ and Pop Smoke on ‘War.’ He’s a hit maker.
Most people would be content with that for a year’s work. Tjay, not so much. His melodic sound which treads the line between hip-hop and the commerciality of modern RnB, rolled nicely into the release of ‘FN’ – probably the most prolific and well-rounded track in his catalogue. His debut album, True 2 Myself, arrived earlier this summer and it’s success made Tjay outgrow his ‘one to watch’ name tag and become someone who is too hard to ignore. It’s in his debut body of work where he perfectly captures the feeling of being a kid in New York.
It’s also the album which has brought him to these shores for the first time; selling out Camden’s Electric Ballroom for back-to-back nights. It’s something which you can tell genuinely means a lot to him. “To perform in London and to see and hear everyone say the lyrics back to you. It’s crazy,” he smiles. “The love they give to me is mad. So far I haven’t really done anything too much (in London), everything I have been doing is interviews, promo and shows. So, I haven’t had a chance to really explore the city but I just love the vibe here.”
To commemorate his first trip to London, we asked Tjay a quick selection of questions which all begin with ‘the first…’ from first heroes, first football memories and the first thing he does when he gets back home…
Who was your first hero in life?
I’ve never had a hero.
When was the first time music took you out of your comfort zone?
I stay in my comfort zone, I don’t ever move to places or take my music out of comfort zones. It’s all just about how I want to do music.
What was the first track you remember as a kid?
Probably Michael Jackson. He was always playing in my house.
When was the first time you met a fan?
I was at a show in Middletown, New York, that was my first ever show. I had a couple of fans there. I would say that there was a good like 30 people, maybe a couple more. That’s the first time I ever saw any fans and it was all at that one time.
How long ago was that show?
Like two years ago. It’s mad to think about that now.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in those two years?
It’s all about new experiences. Everything to me right now is new. So it all feels great. It’s a blessing.
When you’re on tour, what’s the first thing you ask for on your rider?
I don’t really ask for anything. Actually, Sprite. Yeah, I like Sprite.
What was the first time you were starstruck?
I’ve never been starstruck.
What about someone you’d like to meet?
I’d like to meet Drake. I grew up listening to him and I still do. He’s so consistent, from my childhood to now he’s still at the top.
What has been the first pinch-me moment of your career?
Honestly, there’s new moments all the time. I can’t even claim there to be one highlight, it’s everyday something new which gives me life. Coming to London was a moment.
What is your favourite thing about being in London?
The fans, man. The love they give to me is mad. So far I haven’t really done anything too much, everything I have been doing is interviews, promo and shows. So, I haven’t had a chance to really explore the city but I just love the vibe here.
Is it still a mad experience for you to see the incredible numbers on the streams and to see fans half way across the world, does that feeling ever escape you?
It’s definitely so mad. To perform in London and to see and hear everyone say the lyrics back to you. It’s crazy.
What is the first song you heard that you written?
I don’t know about an actual song. But it would be something from artists like Biggie, Eminem and Lil Wayne. They were artists that I loved growing up. They are artists that say it how it is, they look beyond what is normal. So, there’s plenty of songs that inspired my journey.
What are your first memories of playing soccer?
Man, I used to play soccer all the time when I was in elementary school – every recess we used to run out and play. From Kindergarten through to the fifth grade that was the main thing to do. In middle school and high school I guess I fell back from it. To be honest, I’m not really in tune with any sport but soccer was the first one for me that was part of my life and I enjoyed playing.
What was your first jersey?
I don’t think I’ve ever worn one. The Blue US jersey you guys put me in today was nice, though. I could wear that.
What about UK artists, is there any one you are tuned into right now?
I fuck with Digdat, Dave and Deno.
What makes those three so special right now do you think?
I feel like they have a connection to their music, like a real one. So, when you tap into the internet and hear their sound you’re really into it. It’s a special thing.
Taking it back to two years ago when you had that first gig, what was your perception or definition of success back then?
Literally, that what I was doing was going to bigger than this. I knew the journey was only just beginning then. It’s weird, because I’ve never felt like I’m successful or never will until I’m the most successful.
You’re incredibly driven although you’re still incredibly young, where do you think you get that level of ambition from?
I honestly have no idea. I’ve always had this desire to do this so, so bad. I’ve always had this desire to be a superstar. So, literally, I just said that I’m going to make this happen.
When do you first remember having that thought?
I was honestly a kid, man. A proper kid. I remember just listening to them artists which I told you about and I was always plugged into watching all the videos and admiring the lifestyle. I just knew it was going to me one day.
Two hours down, and we’ve decided we’ve learned a lot about Tjay. We’ve learned that he has an enduring desire to be the best, an enduring desire to change the world around him, to lead by example and make the come-up for the next New York star, however quick they may follow in his footsteps, easier. But, it’s hard for him. He’s literally learning on the job. As you now know, he’s never properly toured, never had a hero, never had anyone to tell him how things really work. Which makes his rise all the more remarkable.