It’s been 12 hours since the release of his debut album True 2 Myself, and Bronx native Lil Tjay and his nine friends are still recovering from the celebratory night before. 

Tjay’s mood is mellow, matching the vibe he created on the 15-song project. He’s not speaking much, but he is smiling. Sitting in Complex’s midtown Manhattan office, he looks up from his phone and stares at a poster of Wale (whose album, Wow...That’s Crazy, also dropped the night before) hovering over the reception desk. “I see y’all got the big poster up,” he says, before declaring that he will have his own one day. 

The 18-year-old rapper is always plotting his next move. Back in 2016, he was serving time in a juvenile detention center for robbery. While incarcerated, he planned out his future success, filling two notebooks with handwritten verses. At that moment, he promised to himself that he would focus his efforts on taking the crown as the King of New York. Three years later, he believes he can check that goal off of his list. 

Asked who he thinks the current King of New York is, he unflinchingly answers, “Me.” 

Tjay’s confidence stems from an impressive run as of late. His first hit “Resume” led to a run of singles that comfortably passed 10 million streams each. Proving himself as a consistent hit-maker, he signed to Columbia Records; a move that would align him with Chicago rookie Polo G. Together, the two earned their first platinum plaque with “Pop Out.” 

“I need like 30 plaques, but that’s probably not even going to be a lot,” he says now. “I need a lot of plaques.”

In 2019, he has dropped two documentaries, an EP, and landed high-profile features on French Montana’s “Slide,” Yung Bans’ “Touch The Stars,” and Pop Smoke’s “War.” Now, his debut album, True 2 Myself, has finally arrived, and his face is plastered on billboards all over Times Square.

Lil Tjay caught up with Complex to discuss his new album, why being incarcerated was the best thing that ever happened to him, and how he continues to challenge the throne as the King of New York.  

Lil Tjay
Photo by Daniel Prakopcyk

You named your album True 2 Myself. How did you come to that conclusion?
I don’t want to be true to anybody else. I want to follow my dreams. I want to make sure that I put myself first and accomplish what I need to accomplish. I didn’t really record the album thinking, “This song is going to be on the album, and this is going to be the first or second track.” My album is just a body of work that happened over time. It wasn’t like those were the last 15 songs I made, so I was going to just put them on my album. True 2 Myself means a lot to me because it’s a part of me. It’s me trying to get to my next level of success, so I just need to be true to who I am and focus on that main goal.

Going to jail is one of the best things that happened to me. It helped me get my mind right.

On “Leaked,” you rap about someone in your circle leaking your songs. What’s the story behind that?
I didn’t know who the fuck was leaking my songs. My songs were just popping up on everything and everybody was laughing about it like, “Yo, I got the unreleased Lil Tjay.” So I’m like, “Aight, I got some more heat. I don’t give a fuck if y’all are leaking it. I’m going to keep dropping more shit.” So I named the song “Leaked” and put the cover art as a leaked song.

And you never found out who it was?
I don’t even give a fuck. It’s just that nobody is getting my music anymore. It’s staying with me. True to me.

On “No Escape,” you abandoned Auto-Tune, and the beat is stripped down. What made you approach this song differently?
I feel like I’ve been playing one lane a little bit. The thing behind the album is, I didn’t want it to be one sound, but I did want it to be one mood. So when you go through it, it’s kind of mellow, besides “F.N.” “No Escape” is another sound that I’ve been playing with. It’s just me straight rapping. This is going to be a transition throughout my career. I’m going to step into different lanes. I have different ways I can approach a track. 

Videos were all over the internet this summer of you allegedly getting arrested. It turns out that you were shooting the video for “F.N.” Can you walk me through the storyline of the music video?
The song “F.N” is just me talking about my feelings toward snitches and rats. The music video just shows me being with my friends, chilling outside. Something goes down, and everybody gets locked, up so there’s only one person who is going to hold it down. At the end of the video, I go home and a person dies, but that’s how I wanted the video.

Prior to the video, you said that you purposely chose not to glorify your stints in jail. Why? And what changed with the “F.N” video?
There’s no reason to really talk about that stuff. It just came from thinking about trying to be mature and putting myself in a better headspace. People look up to me, so if they feel like that’s what I think is cool, they’ll think it’s cool. There’s no reason to preach it like it’s cool because I know it’s not cool. So me saying something that I know is not cool, just because other people think it is cool, is just feeding ignorance. It’s just going to keep the same trend. And who knows? I can’t put myself in the exact same headspace as before, but rapping could have been influencing my bad decisions and I wasn’t noticing. Somebody has to make that change and make that difference. I’m not saying that I don’t talk about shit in my music. I do. But I like to get in interviews and talk serious about what’s really in my head, besides the fun shit and the stupid shit. 

I’m going to step into different lanes. I have different ways I can approach a track. 

What are some things you learned while being locked up?
I learned how to be true to myself. I learned how to be militant, and how to think of things by myself. When you’re incarcerated, you don’t have anybody. You have to learn how to think for yourself. I started seeing how I wanted my story to be told. Going to jail is one of the best things that happened to me. It helped me get my mind right.

When you got out of jail, you had two notebooks full of bars. How many of those verses made it on this album?
I got them tucked. I used a couple, but I can’t even say for which songs. I’ve written so many songs that I don’t know which ones are literally from jail. I have the notebook in the crib with songs I haven’t even record yet. You know what I’m going to do? Later in my career, I want to go back and sing those songs over. I want to put myself back in that headspace, just to make sure that I’m staying true to myself. I’m never going to have the same hunger. If I’m in this room right now, I can describe it perfectly. When I leave, I just basically have a memory of it. If I were to write down everything in this room and leave with it, I would be able to say later, “Yo, this painting was blue, and her lips were red.” I’m not even going to have to think about it, because I already wrote it down. So, that’s how I think about holding the notebooks. Savor old memories.

You have released two documentaries. What were you trying to communicate with them?
I just wanted to show my fans my personality, and let them know that I’m still a regular person. With some artists, you don’t see too much of how their life is. You just hear the music and see pictures. I wanted to open up to them a little bit.

Do you think you’ll keep dropping them?
Hell, yeah. I want to stay connected with my fans. I want to be friends with my fans.

You didn’t start running your Instagram until you had 5,000 followers. Do you run all of your social media now?
Yeah, I run my social media now. That was at first, because I wasn’t even really hip to social media, but someone was putting me onto game. 

You’ve said before that the “street shit” felt forced upon you, when in reality, you were at home watching Disney and Nickelodeon. What did you mean by that?
I felt like there were no options. I mean, there are definitely options. It’s just that with me, I always wanted more. I don’t feel comfortable without certain things. I always want some money in my pocket to do whatever I want. Even if it’s something like I want to eat food that costs more than what I got. If I want it, I’m going to get it. I was just using the wrong way to do things, so I had to figure it out. But that was really it: me not having anything, and not knowing how to get it. Then the only way I knew how to get it was illegal. But if it worked one time and I got away with it, I wanted to keep doing it. That’s how I got caught up with what I was doing. 

You started buzzing and had multiple labels trying to sign you. Ultimately, why Columbia?
I took a coin and flipped. I said, “If it goes heads, it’s Columbia.” That shit flipped like 10 times and it was Columbia, so I was like, “All right, bet.” Nah, I’m fucking with you bro. I just felt comfortable with it.

Can you walk me through what those meetings were like? 
You go in, you play them some music, and they’re like, “Oh, word? That’s crazy.” And then they just try to talk wild bullshit in your ear. You just gotta be like, “Where the bag at?” They’ll talk about this and that, but you just have to try and get the bag. 

That’s crazy to think about, especially because you used to pull up to those meetings with no manager.
I used to pull up to meetings with my gang. I was doing a lot of meetings when different labels would call me over. It was just the same shit, though, like I said. They’ll just be like, “Play music.” You know, they want to hear what you’re saying. It’s different if I’m approaching the situation with a manager. I was learning everything as I was doing it. 

Did you ever feel like you were getting low-balled because you came without the right personnel?
Yeah, at first, before I signed my deal. I almost got really low-balled, but I woke up, like, “Yoo, Tjay wake up! You’re bugging.”

What was your reaction to “Pop Out” going platinum and “Brothers” going gold?
“Brothers” is gold! That shit feels good. I’m looking forward to new plaques. It feels great with “Pop Out” and “Brothers.” Everything little thing feels great right now. I need like 30 plaques, but that’s probably not even going to be a lot. I need a lot of plaques. 

There are lots of young New York rappers who are starting to pop right now. What separates you from other young NY guys like TJ Porter, Sheff G, and Lil Tecca?
[Sings] Because I’m Lil Tjay. I feel like it’s the same thing that separates me from everybody else. We all make music. I don’t even know how to answer that, bro. Because it’s not just like you said one person. You said a couple of people, so the answer is going to be the same as the average person. One person has a different headspace. One person has a different opinion on this. One person dresses differently… 

Who do you think is the King of New York right now?

Yeah? Why do you say that?
You’ll see. We’re going to see. Just put it like that in the interview. We’re going to see. 

Do you think anyone has any misconceptions about you? 
It’s kind of hard knowing the outside perspective of me. But I just hope people understand the image I’m trying to paint. I’m a good-hearted person and my biggest goal is to be successful. That’s really the biggest part about me.

I know you followed the entire Avatar series when it was new. With your music in mind, what sign would you compare yourself to?
I ain’t gonna lie, I always fake wanted to be a firebender. Firebenders are evil in the Avatar world but fire is it. Why would you want to play with water and air if you could play with fire? 

What’s next for you?
I’m going to take over the world.