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Lil Tjay Cheated Death. What Does a ‘Miracle Kid’ Do Next?


O
N A BRISK
DECEMBER evening, in a lounge at West Hollywood’s Westlake Studios, Lil Tjay and his five-person entourage watch a boxing match as they plan the night’s next move. Amid the plush couches, love seats, and a giant TV, his security guard, also a boxer, extols the discipline and confidence needed to get into the ring. One of Tjay’s managers, Deon Douglas, notes that “you couldn’t pay me to get punched in the face.” They all laugh, and Tjay points out that the object of boxing is to hit, not get hit. “You gotta go into the fight thinking you gonna win,” he says. It’s a reality he’s familiar with.

At just 21 years old, Lil Tjay has already racked up 14 platinum singles. His first session in a professional studio, when he was 16 years old, spawned “Resume,” an earworm that caught fire in New York City, and, along with a slew of other singles he uploaded to SoundCloud, led to a deal with Columbia Records in 2018. Tjay, who’s readying his not-yet-titled third album for release later this year, went from spending his teenage years in and out of juvenile detention centers to becoming one of New York’s biggest rap stars, just as adept at crooning ballads like the Justin Bieber-sampling “None of Your Love” as he is at gruff, party-starting singles like “War,” with 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-drill love story released on her EP Like..? in January. I’m one of the first people to hear the track, which rides a sample of the Y2k-era P. Diddy single “I Need a Girl Pt. 2.” Tjay repeatedly plays the track off his phone, pondering whether he should tweak 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 in the green room. 

His most introspective work speaks for a generation of young people navigating the turmoil of the streets, as his friend and close collaborator Polo G recognizes. “I fuck with any rapper that I fucked with when I was in the trenches,” Polo tells me the next day. “Music like his, in his earlier stages, got me through some shit [while] just vibin’ and going through the motions of bein’ me. I’m-a always fuck with bro.”

One of Polo’s favorite Lil Tjay songs is 2018’s “Brothers,” where the Bronx MC croons, “Big bag don’t mean everything wavy/I got 99 problems like Jay-Z.” The lines feel like a prescient glimpse of what he’d come to deal with four years later. Last June, Tjay was shot in an apparent robbery just hours before he was set to fly to Paris Fashion Week. The story might have even ended there, one of a growing number of artists who have died due to gun violence. Luckily, Tjay wasn’t one of them.

“Right now, I’m charged up,” he tells me. “I just took seven shots. I’m not on no tough-guy shit, or on some angel shit. I feel like a miracle kid. I feel like my purpose is bigger than I know. I’m just trying to figure out what life got in store for me. I know that I’m destined to win. I’m destined to be great. All I’ve been doing was capitalizing off of setbacks. I just had a big-ass setback. I just feel like it charged me up, because it’s more to overcome.”

There would be even more challenges to come. Roughly five weeks after our talk, he and four others were arrested for second-degree gun possession at a Bronx video shoot for “Gangsta Boo.” The NYPD reportedly spotted his SUV parked in a no-standing zone, then found four guns after searching the vehicle. He’s since posted bond and been released. Tjay’s team hasn’t commented on the arrest.

BORN TIONE MERRITT, Tjay grew up on 183rd Street and Ryer Avenue in the Fordham section of the Bronx with his mother and three younger siblings. (Tjay says he never knew his father and doesn’t have much desire to find him.) He was a studious child who balanced a desire to excel in elementary school with a mischievous streak that, he says, at times made him “the bad kid in my class.” From an early age, he was enamored with the idea of music stardom, watching artists like Lil Wayne and Bieber and affirming that he would be as famous as them one day. He remembers writing “little six-bar rhymes” with his aunt in first grade.

Tjay in kindergarten

Courtesy of Lil Tjay

A few years later, in fourth grade, his vocals were good enough to nab a lead in a school chorus, but during rehearsals, he remembers, “I just kept on freezing up. I couldn’t sing in front of people.” Music was his dream, but he was nervous about divulging it. “I was almost embarrassed to say that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.

“Growing up in the Bronx, at least for me and my specific group of friends, it ain’t really too much we wanted to do,” he remembers. “We’d just chill, sit back, get high. We didn’t really leave the block.” Eventually, the monotony of that routine led to serious trouble. Tjay says his first brush with the law occurred in “sixth or seventh grade,” when cops came to his school with a warrant and locked him up for two days. His mother’s heartbreak spurred a regret “deeper than any punishment.” But even after that incident, he kept getting into trouble in the neighborhood.

“In my heart, I felt like I wanted to be good,” he says. “And when I say good, the things I was doing to get locked up weren’t evil — I was just doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, being hardheaded, and wanting an adrenaline rush. I used to tell myself, like, ‘Yo, you need to stop.’ But it was almost an addiction to the lifestyle.” That thirst for adrenaline defined his early teenage years. As he got older, he began to lose people around him, like his friend Esmerlyn “Smelly” Toribio, whom Tjay has referenced throughout his catalog; in August 2016, Toribio was stabbed to death in a motorcycle sale gone bad. “I literally was right there with him,” Tjay remembers. “Bro just got stabbed. But I ain’t think that he was going to die. The cops on the scene [were] like, ‘Yo, who did it?’ And I told them I just came [on the scene].” The cops asked again, and he repeated the same. Then, Tjay recalls, “They said, ‘Tell us who did it or we going to let him die.’ ” (The NYPD did not return a request for comment.) 

The coldness of the streets had become TJay’s regular climate. “I was too deep in the streets, and I ain’t know what I needed to be doing,” TJay recalls of that time in his life. “I kept going to jail, and I seen people around me die. I’m seeing people catching long sentences. I was trying to figure it out. I was lost.” TJay tells me he’s lost over 20 people to the streets. When Tjay was 15, his juvenile delinquency had resulted in a yearlong sentence for a robbery.

“That’s when I really put my all into music,” he recalls. “I just felt like that was my jackpot. If anything could happen in life, that would be it.” He started writing rhymes nonstop. Once others in the facility began asking him to rap, he knew he had something. “We’ll be at the dinner table, and I’ll be like, ‘Yo, give me a beat, and I’ll rap some of my songs,’ ” he recalls. “Everybody was like, ‘Bro, you going to blow up.’” By the time he left jail, he had a notebook full of rhymes.

Tjay was released from youth detention on probation in September 2017. The probation agreement included a strict stipulation that any legal infraction could mean three to five years in prison. He had to tread lightly but was prepared to. “I felt like a new man,” he says. “I still had a little spark in me, but I wanted way better for myself.” That fall, he was focused on two things: staying in school and recording music. That December, he uploaded “Resume,” a track that his friends in jail had always asked him to recite, to SoundCloud.

Over minimalist piano-driven production, Tjay boasted about his romantic conquests with a beguiling melody and paired “Resume” with a video where he and his friends radiate youthful vigor; he had found his formula with his very first track. Over time, he’d steadily grow his buzz with songs like “Ride for You” and “Brothers.” After an instance when a mob of people waited for him outside his probation office, even his initially skeptical probation officer realized that he was going places.

After several meetings with other labels, Tjay signed with Columbia Records in June 2018. His lifelong aspiration was coming to fruition, and he celebrated by taking $20,000 of his advance and blowing it on Jordans for him and all his friends. “At the time, I couldn’t even blow the $20,000 because I didn’t know what to buy,” Tjay recalls. But he’d soon learn, becoming a teenage millionaire with New York as his playground. “When I first got lit, I was still 17. I used to just stay in the city all day,” he says. “I’d be out, I’d get a hotel, have all the guys in the hotel, get a new hotel every day. Smoking fees and all that for almost a year straight.”

The year after he signed to Columbia, Tjay dropped his debut, True 2 Myself, which opened at Number Five on the Billboard 200. Buoyed by high-powered singles like “Brothers,” “Leaked,” “FN,” and “Hold On,” the 15-track project went platinum. It elevated Tjay from a hometown hero to a budding star. “At that time, I didn’t know about album units or anything. I was just learning about it as I was going,” he recalls. He’d found himself in a predicament many young artists face in an industry that rarely slows down to help them learn how to handle their newfound stature. “I just came in with no guidance,” he says. “Management would give me a ‘Yo, you shouldn’t do this,’” but it wasn’t nobody that I felt like I had to listen to. And then there was nobody that I even understood. I might understand what you’re saying, but I might not understand the importance of ‘You got to move like this because adults move like this.’ ”

STILL, TJAY WAS on top of the world. He followed up his debut with 2021’s Destined 2 Win, a critically lauded release that debuted at Number Five on the charts. And Tjay had plans to improve even more for his third album, then titled Not in the Mood. Last summer, in the midst of recording the album, he took a break to head to Paris Fashion Week and then to London for a couple of shows (for a seven-figure payday). The flight to Paris was booked for 6 a.m. on June 22, but Tjay never made it. He was shot seven times in a botched robbery early that morning. 

It’s still an open case, so Tjay can’t get into details, but this much has been reported: Shortly after midnight on June 22, Tjay, his cousin Antoine “Bubba Stackz” Boyd, and friend Jeffrey Valdez were sitting in a red Dodge Durango in the parking lot of a Chipotle in an Edgewater, New Jersey, shopping center. An affidavit states that one of the victims told police that 27-year-old Mohamed Konate approached their car, demanded their jewelry, then began firing a gun. Tjay was shot once in his neck, once in his arm, and five times in his torso, including one bullet that was an inch away from his heart.

Tjay recovering in the hospital last summer

Courtesy of Lil Tjay

“I don’t even know [if] I knew it was seven times,” he solemnly reflects in the studio. “When them shits get to hittin’ you, it’s different. When it’s again and again, it’s like, yo! I ain’t going to lie, everybody that was there and seen me — undeniably it looked like it was over.” Tjay says that he was consumed with anger immediately after the shooting.

“I was mad,” he emphasizes. “Not sad, not scared. I was just mad like, ‘Yo, it’s over that quick? I didn’t just kill myself … I just let somebody do that to me?’ I felt like I fucked up, like I could’ve been moving smarter.”

Tjay wants the new album to show the resilience of his music: “A vibe that’s like a humble way of saying, ‘Y’all can’t stop me.’” 

Tjay passed out while waiting for the ambulance and was airlifted to Hackensack University Medical Center roughly two hours later, where he was in a coma for five days. When he finally woke up, he thought he had only been asleep for a couple of hours. “The hospital lady came over to me like, ‘Hey, you didn’t look so good the other day, bud,’ ” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘The other day? What you mean, the other day?’”

Over several days, feeling came back 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,” he says. “I wrote his name, and I tried to put a question mark. [And they told me] ‘Bubba got shot. He’s good. Got out the next day.’ Then the next thing I said was ‘How many?’ That’s when they looked like, ‘How many what? How many times you got shot?’ They said ‘Seven.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ I started thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’”

With a bullet still lodged in his neck, he initially ignored the doctor’s requests to talk, worried speaking would hurt or do more damage, but his mother inspired his first words. “When my mom came up, she was like, ‘Oh, they took your tube out. You looking better today. What’s up? How you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, Ma.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, you talking?’” he warmly recalls. 

Tjay had five torso wounds that had ravaged his insides, and being an asthmatic had him in a worse pulmonary state than the average person. Eventually, his fever spiked to lethal levels and required emergency attention. “[The doctors are] like, ‘Yo, you’re going to catch a stroke,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t move. It was mad fuckin’ 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.” The doctors told him they were prepared for emergency surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his neck, but he didn’t want to be put back under anesthesia because “I was scared to go back to sleep.” They put a numbing agent on his neck at his behest and pulled out the bullet with a scalpel. “I could feel the bullet, too,” he says. “She’s touching my neck, and I could feel a bullet, and I’m like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ All I’m thinking is, ‘What? I got a story to tell.’”

Once Tjay’s condition stabilized, he focused on telling that story. Hip-hop dignitaries like 50 Cent and Diddy called him with encouragement. Tjay says that 50 called him from a jet, telling him, “Every artist needs pain or something to feed off of. This right here, you shake this shit off. You got the length for greatness. You going to be bigger than ever.” 50 speaks from experience. He was left for dead by the industry after taking nine shots in 2000 but funneled his pain into music that resonates 20-plus years later. 

Tjay vied to do the same with “Beat the Odds,” a track he partially recorded in the hospital. (“I needed to hear myself,” he says. “I wanted to be me real quick.”) He already had the song, which featured Polo G, but the two agreed that its sentiment strongly applied to Tjay’s predicament, so Tjay rewrote and rerecorded a verse. “Every line I had to say one by one, I was gasping for air,” he recalls. “I could only say a couple words, and I would run out of breath at the time. I was still draining blood out my lungs.” But he finished the song, then paired it with a video filmed inside the hospital room. 

After three weeks in the hospital, Tjay was discharged with a bulletproof truck, four security escorts, and a new lease on life. He had done a lot of reflecting during his hospital stay, specifically during the periods when he couldn’t talk. “I got airlifted into the sky at 2:22, and it was June 22, 2022,” he says. “When I searched those numbers, it was like ‘God’s giving you the opportunity to change.’” Tjay says he’s not religious, but his survival and rapid recovery reaffirmed his belief in a higher power. “I questioned God before that,” he says. “I don’t anymore. I know God’s real, a billion percent.” 

“I’m traumatized but try not to let it mess up my every day,” Lil Tjay says. “I try to just think I was in a once-in-a-blue-moon situation.” 

THE DAY AFTER our conversation at Westlake Studios, the Novo in L.A. is packed for the first stop of Tjay’s aptly named I’m Back Tour, his first headlining set since the shooting. The performance starts with faux doctors trying to revive an actor playing the rapper in a hospital bed. Toward the end of the skit, Tjay’s DJ implores the crowd to scream “Wake up, Tjay!” — which they do. Eventually, the doctors push the bed offstage where I am, and the actor playing Tjay quickly hops out of it. 

Before the show, the dressing room is crowded with Tjay’s friends: Polo G, a surprise performer for the night, sits in the corner next to him. King Combs, another surprise guest, sits on the other side of Tjay. Everyone’s there for him, and this is no routine performance. After his brush with death in June, there was a sobering possibility that none of this would be happening.

Lil TJay performs during Rolling Loud at Citi Field on Sept.23, 2022, in New York.

Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images

After the show, Tjay has a meet-and-greet session where fans can take pictures. Many of the teenagers are so nervous that they barely talk to him, sitting and quickly raising up hand gestures for future Instagram posts. He ends up signing a slew of items: a giant Spotify Wrapped poster, a Grizzlies jersey, and a pair of Air Force Ones. After the session, a man in a colorful jacket gives him an elevator pitch about filming video content for his channel. Tjay obliges, then the man pulls out a notebook and asks a meandering, rapid-fire question about his mental health and healing from his shooting. I can see Tjay’s face trying to process the loaded question. Rather than reacting rudely, he flashes his trademark smile and gives the best possible answer: “I’m different.”

In September, Tjay released the fiery “Faceshot,” in which he freestyles over 50’s “Many Men” and asserts himself with bars like, “Think ’cause I sing that I won’t pack your ass.” But he’s not looking to re-create 50’s propensity for rap beef. “I regret ever arguing with anybody on the internet, ever,” Tjay says about his past viral dust-ups. “Any online arguments and stuff like that … a lot of that’s just ego.”

He now considers himself L.A.-based, living in Calabasas the past two years, and feels conflicted about being back East. “I know New York is dangerous,” he says. “It’s probably not the safest place for me, but New York is home.” Therein lies the quandary for young rappers all over the country, who love their hometown, even when it doesn’t always love them back. 

But while crafting his upcoming album, he’s also been healing. He couldn’t record without pain until the end of October, and he still doesn’t have feeling on the right side of his torso; the doctors say it should return in a “year plus.” The mental toll of the shooting is also something he’s contending with. “I try not to move like I’m traumatized,” he states. “I try not to let it mess up my every day. I just try to be normal and just think I was in a once-in-a-blue-moon situation.” But still, he’s changed up his routine and cut people off who weren’t there for him while he was in the hospital. 

Since June, Tjay has been focused on reworking his third album, which he says is coming “soon,” but doesn’t give many more details. He did play me four songs he crafted for the album at Westlake: a fiery, no-hook bar fest that we talked about as a potential intro or outro, a sultry duet with Summer Walker that was primed for single rollout before the shooting, a collaboration with DaBaby where the two trade bars, and an ambitious, electronic-tinged banger that sounds ripe for stadium speakers. Tjay’s manager Deon Douglas poked his head into the studio space specifically to tell Tjay to play the last song, likely thinking of its crossover potential. The whole time Tjay played me the songs, he giddily recited them while jumping up and down in a manner similar to his Novo performance, perhaps envisioning future performances. 

He says the album is no longer titled Not in the Mood, and he wants the new title to represent the resilient tone of his latest music. “Damn near, like [Drake’s] Take Care,” he says. “A vibe that’s like a humble way of saying, ‘Y’all can’t stop me.’” 

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