“You wanna go more gangsta love, white love, or Black love?” Lil Tjay is scavenging his phone for the right vibe from his new album, 222, to preview for me. I select “white love,” mostly out of curiosity to see just what a Lil Tjay song could sound like under that descriptor.
There’s a brief silence before the voice of Australian heartthrob The Kid LAROI jolts out of his iPhone, crooning over a saccharine piano melody. Tjay thinks the songs on this album—which, in addition to that particular tune include “pain bars” with NBA Youngboy and Jadakiss, a duet with Summer Walker (that would be “Black love”), and a drill song with Fivio Foreign—are a marked improvement on his past work. He believes they’re even better than some of his biggest hits. “That shit hot garbage,” he says of “Calling My Phone,” arguably his most beloved track and a song that, as of this writing, has over 650 million streams on Spotify. “It’s two years later. That shit already sold what it’s gonna sell. That shit trash.”
If any pop star has license to make such brash pronouncements, it’s Tjay, who has been at the forefront of mainstream hip-hop for the last half decade. The 22 year-old Bronx native has amassed a staggering nine RIAA certified Platinum-selling singles as a lead artist, including the aforementioned 4x Platinum hot garbage. His warbly croon has propelled summer anthems like the late Pop Smoke’s “Mood Swings” and his slick, staccato rhymes have punched into hits like this past winter’s “Gangsta Boo” by fellow Bronx meteorite Ice Spice.
Raised in the Fordham section of the Bronx, TJay has described himself as a bit of a reformed troublemaker. He got involved in petty crime as a middle schooler, spending two to three months at a time in youth detention centers for his infractions. In 2016, he was sentenced to a year behind bars for an alleged robbery. It was during this latter period that the then-15-year-old resolved to start making music and devise a new path for his life. By the summer of 2018, his song “Brothers” could be heard in just about every school hallway across the city.
Three albums and many hits later, he is one of the biggest acts New York has produced in some time. But like many who have risen in the city before him, Tjay has not always been able to keep the tumult of his past firmly behind him. This became tragically and painfully evident on one particular night last June.
It was just after midnight. Tjay was visiting the city for the first time in nearly a year, staying across the river at a hotel in New Jersey. He was excited to be home and see loved ones, but also slightly wary. “I felt funny that whole week,” he says, “I think my security went home earlier in the week. He had to do something. A family birthday…I’m riding around with my friends, and the whole time, I’m telling them that I just felt weird.”
The sense of unease proved to be prescient. After an evening of what Tjay describes regretfully as “just stopping in front of this spot, doing that, and going to eat in places we shouldn’t,” he and his two friends parked their red Dodge Durango in the lot of a shopping mall in Edgewater. A man approached the SUV, pointed a gun at the trio and demanded that they hand over their jewelry. A scuffle ensued, resulting in Tjay suffering seven gunshot wounds to his thoracic cavity. A few hours later, the rapper would be airlifted to a nearby hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Weeks of grueling, painful recovery would follow. Two months later, in his first public appearance since the incident, he would release the single “Beat the Odds,” rapping, “They be like, ‘Tjay, why do you move around with all them fuckin’ guns?’ / I just tell ’em that’s ’cause I don’t wanna die.” In the video for the song, he can be seen recording the track while still infirmed in a hospital gown and a neck brace.
He’s still processing what happened. “I kind’ve just now comprehended that I was shot seven times,” Lil Tjay says between bites of candy. Before we sat down for our interview, I worried that it was going to be difficult to get the characteristically terse rapper to discuss the event that nearly took his life a year ago. But Tjay seems intent on being frank. He tells me getting shot was the most difficult experience of his life, a moment that required him to make serious reconsiderations on how he was living, and a psychological event that he thinks he’s only just beginning to really understand.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting the gravity of what had occurred didn’t quite register with Tjay. “At first, I was like, ‘N-ggas is pussy’,” he says, sucking his teeth dismissively. Like many who endure physical trauma of that magnitude, he spent months in a medically-induced haze. “I was off so many meds when I first got shot that my mind wasn’t right. …I’d see somebody and be like, ‘Why are they looking a little different?’ But, It’s just, I’m taking like ten percs a day. And, I’m a person who doesn’t take pills.” But as his doses went down, his wounds healed, and things came back into focus, he awoke to a sobering reality. “[For a while] I thought it was like a game or some shit,” he says. “The PTSD damn near kicking in now.”
Tjay describes his new album, 222, as the most premeditated and thorough musical account of his life to date. “I talk about shit that nobody never heard me talk about. I feel like I get deeper than I ever did on this album.” On the record, Tjay sounds authoritative, commanding space on tracks with stars like NBA Youngboy. 222 doesn’t boast any “Calling My Phone”-sized hits, but it does show Tjay expanding his range. Known for his melodies, you can hear the singer’s voice stretching into new expressive terrain, like on the hook of the mournful “Someone Who Cares.”
On “June 22nd”—the most explicit reference to the shooting on the record—Tjay tries his hand at narrative storytelling, painting a picture of the paranoid headspace he found himself in just days before the life-changing event. Overall, it’s a more refined product than past offerings. Edges have been smoothed, polish has been applied.
The album’s title, he says, is in part derived from the angel number which is said to signify an opportunity for change. It’s also a reference to 2:22 am, the hour at which he was airlifted from that parking lot in New Jersey on the night of June 22, 2022 with several gunshot wounds to his chest. This last year and the difficult months of recovery have been the first time since his career began that he was forced to take a beat and introspect. “It took me a while to really record because I was having so many mixed emotions about who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, how I wanted my life to play out,” he says. It wasn’t long ago that he was acting as a friend and collaborator to Pop Smoke before the rising star’s murder in February of 2020. The grim reality of Pop’s loss and the knowledge that it was a fate Tjay almost shared has engendered a gratitude that the young rapper struggles to describe.
“I look at everything as a blessing,” Tjay says no. “‘Cause anytime you have the ability to even think, breath, sit, or stand. You feel me? You blessed.”